On Monday afternoon, the Obama administration released its Clean Power Plan, a major new EPA rule that aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation's electric power plants.
A bunch of media outlets are referring to this as "Obama's climate plan." But that's not quite right. More precisely, this rule is just one piece of a much broader Obama agenda to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. The Clean Power Plan is certainly a significant component, but it isn't even expected to account for a majority of the cuts Obama's envisioning. So keep an eye on all those other rules and policies, as well.
Obama's climate agenda involves a whole slew of rules and regulations
Broadly speaking, President Obama's climate change plan boils down to a simple set of numbers. The United States is currently taking part in international talks to address global warming. And as part of those talks, the Obama administration has vowed that US greenhouse gas emissions will decline 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025:
That's not an easy task. As of 2013, US greenhouse gas emissions had fallen just 8.5 percent below 2005 levels, a drop that largely happened due to the recession, to a natural gas boom that pushed out dirtier coal power, and to a rise in vehicle efficiency. But that's still not enough. And more recently, emissions have started creeping up again. Plus, Congress has no interest in passing climate legislation of any sort.
So to push down emissions even further, the Obama administration has been issuing an array of new rules and regulations through the EPA and other executive-branch agencies. A partial list includes:
- Stricter fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, which will steadily rise through 2025.
- Stricter fuel economy standards for heavy trucks, buses, and vans, which will steadily rise through 2027.
- Proposed CO2 emission standards for any new coal- and gas-fired power plants built in the United States. This rule, when finalized, will make it extremely difficult to build any new coal plants that don't capture and bury their carbon dioxide emissions (a still-nascent technology).
- Standards to curtail methane leaks from all new oil and gas wells, as well as voluntary partnerships to limit methane from agriculture.
- Various initiatives to curtail hydrofluorocarbons, another potent greenhouse gas used in air conditioners and refrigeration.
None of the above has gone through Congress — most of it is being done under legal authority that the Supreme Court granted the EPA back in 2007.
You can also throw in other policies enacted throughout Obama's presidency that have helped reshape the energy landscape and curtail emissions. There were the expanded tax credits for wind and solar power in the 2009 stimulus bill. The Energy Department has been setting new energy efficiency standards for household appliances. The EPA crafted a rule cracking down on mercury pollution, which has pushed utilities to retire many of their oldest, dirtiest coal plants. Meanwhile, states like California and New York have conducted their own policies to boost clean energy and curtail emissions. It all adds up.
The Clean Power Plan is just one part of that climate agenda
Now, on top of all that, the EPA is finalizing its Clean Power Plan, which will directly address carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.
This is certainly one of the more ambitious climate rules the Obama administration has done, given that power plants account for 31 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. And the Clean Power Plan is expected to have a serious impact on the electricity sector, reducing power plant emissions roughly 20 percent from today's levels by 2030.
But in the grand scheme of things, that amounts to a 6 percentage point cut in US greenhouse gases — or about one-quarter of the emission cuts necessary to hit Obama's 2025 climate goal. Significant? Yes. The whole story? No.
So will Obama's broader climate plan solve climate change?
Not by itself, no. Even Obama's broader climate plan is only one piece of an even bigger global effort. And that global plan has a whole lot of moving parts.
First, the United States actually needs to hit those 2025 targets — and that's not yet guaranteed, even with the Clean Power Plan in place. A recent analysis from the World Resources Institute suggests that the US will need either more climate policies from Congress (which looks unlikely right now) or new regulations from the next president. Those additional rules could involve things like emissions cuts from refineries, cement plants, airplanes, and so on, as well as strengthening some of Obama's existing policies. So a lot depends on the next president.
Second, other countries would have to take their own climate measures. After all, the United States only accounts for about 17 percent of global emissions. We certainly can't solve anything by ourselves. The Obama administration is hoping that its recent efforts — including the Clean Power Plan — will spur other countries to respond in kind. Over the past year, for instance, China and Brazil have put out their own pledges for curbing emissions. The ultimate goal is for all these proposals to get stitched together into a global climate agreement at UN talks in Paris in December 2015.
But ultimately, the whole world will need to step up its climate ambitions if we want to avoid significant temperature increases. The International Energy Agency recently estimated that even if you take every nation's current climate pledges seriously, we're still on pace for around 3°C of warming by 2100 — well above the 2°C limit that most countries have set as a goal. Everyone needs to do more.
So that's where the Clean Power Plan fits in the broader scheme of things. It's a major policy, yes, but stabilizing global temperatures and "fixing" climate change will require a lot of moving parts.
Read more: Our full analysis of the Clean Power Plan.