Obama Administration Unveils Notable Climate Change Plan

A power plant in Alberta, Canada emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. A proposed EPA rule would seeks to cut emissions from existing power plants in the U.S. by 30 percent by 2030. (Credit: Kris Krug)

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal on Monday that would cut carbon emissions from existing power plants — something that has never been done before.

Power plants are the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., responsible for 32 percent of total emissions. The newly proposed Clean Power Plan—which proposes new rules under the Clean Air Act and is part of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan—aims to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants nationwide by 30 percent from 2005 levels. Other pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxides would be cut by more than 25 percent as well. Nearly 1,600 power plants could be affected by the rule.

Under the proposal, the EPA will assess each state and provide it with individual reduction targets based on energy source, usage, and economic impact. For example, the rule calls on coal-dependent states like Kentucky and West Virginia to cut emissions by 19 and 21 percent, respectively. But in states like Washington, which have only one coal-burning power plant and rely heavily on hydro-electric power, an 85 percent reduction would be required, according to a Georgetown University Climate Center analysis of the proposed rule.

States would have until June 30, 2016 to submit strategies that comply with the mandated goals of the new rule. Furthermore, the proposal gives states a bevy of options to choose from including shutting down coal plants, switching from burning coal to burning natural gas, developing renewable energy technology such as wind and solar power, joining California and northeastern cap-and-trade markets, and even enacting state-level taxes on carbon pollution. The U.S. is already a third of the way to meeting the proposal’s 30 percent goal, and some states have already exceeded that standard by cutting emissions by 40 percent or more.

One benefit of curbing pollution is improving human health. The EPA estimates that cutting emissions could prevent as many as 6,600 premature deaths, 150,000 childhood asthma attacks, and 490,000 missed work or school days in 2030.

“Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a statement. “By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids.”

When it comes to protecting wildlife species, however, the new plan places the responsibility on individual states. “The precise steps States choose to take in that regard cannot be determined or ordered by this federal action, and they are not sufficiently certain to be attributable to this proposed rule for ESA purposes,” the proposal states. “Consequently, for this additional reason, the EPA does not believe that this proposed rule (if enacted) would have effects on listed species.” Still, the EPA recognizes that questions exist over the effects some mitigation strategies such as wind and solar power technology might have on wildlife. In fact, it is estimated that wind farms kill more than 573,000 birds annually, according to a 2013 study published in the peer-reviewed Wildlife Society Bulletin.

In a position statement released in 2011, The Wildlife Society outlined the effects of climate change on wildlife and habitat—such as an increase in invasive species and habitat shifts—and called for measures to address the issue. These measures include mitigating atmospheric greenhouse gases in various ways, such as moving toward carbon-neutral forms of energy and through carbon sequestration achieved by increased natural resource management activities including sustainable forest management.

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