Cleaning up America

9th June 2014

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Gregory Bradley-Ritt

The US may soon slip behind China as the world's largest economy, but remains the largest emitter of CO2 per head, so Obama's clean power plan is a move in the right direction, says Paul Suff

Currently, there are no limits on the amount of carbon dioxide power plants in the US can pump into the air. Hopefully, that is about to change. Carbon pollution from existing US power stations will fall 30% against 2005 levels by 2030 under a clean power plan from the Environmental Protection Agency (Epa).

The plan, made at the direction of president Obama and due to begin coming into force from June 2015, will also cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide by more than 25%. Power plants account for around 38% of domestic US greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, and the agency says its blueprint is designed to protect public health, move the country towards a cleaner environment and fight climate change.

Why is it significant? The US may soon slip behind China as the world’s largest economy, but its electricity consumption per capita still dwarfs that of its competitor in south east Asia. According to data from the World Bank, US per capita electricity consumption in 2011 was 13,246KWh. The figure for China was 3,298kWh – 5,472kWh in the UK in case you wondered. That means the US remains the largest emitter of CO2 per head of population. Carbon dioxide emissions per head across the world averaged 4.6 tonnes in 2010. The figures for the US and China were 18.1 and 6.3 tonnes, respectively.

Obama has pledged to cut US emissions by 17% against 2005 levels by 2020, 42% by 2030 and 83% by 2050, but his previous plans to take action on climate change have failed to overcome congressional barriers. The president is now using his executive powers to bypass the bicameral legislature and allow the Epa to regulate power sector emissions directly under the Clean Air Act.

But we shouldn’t get carried away. Emissions from power plants in the US have already fallen by around 12% since 2005 due to the recession and the shift from coal to cheaper shale gas – though they are again moving upwards. And, given past experience, industry and some states are likely to challenge the federal limits, which could scupper their introduction from June 2015, putting them at risk from a post-Obama administration, which is due to take office in January 2017.

Still, having been consistently criticised in the past for failing to take action on climate change – with the low point being the decision by George W Bush to pull the US out of the Kyoto protocol – the clean power plan marks a change of direction for America. Bush argued that implementing the protocol would gravely damage the US economy. That is no longer the view of the White House.

Announcing the clean power plan, Epa administrator Gina McCarthy said the US did not have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment, arguing that the plan would sharpen America’s competitive edge, spur innovation, and create jobs.

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