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Will US take global environmental lead by cutting coal emissions?

--Rennett Stowe/Flickr

The United States’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its already known plan to cut power plant carbon emissions in the US by 2030, on Monday. The most significant environmental move made by the Obama administration aims to set a global standard for fellow carbon emission offenders. As a major producer of greenhouse gases, the US taking steps to curb emissions makes it easier to ply pressure on the likes of China.

“The decision by President Obama to launch plans to more tightly regulate emissions from power plants will send  a good signal to nations everywhere that one of the world’s biggest emitters is taking the future of the planet and its people seriously,” said Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in response to the plan.

China, the US, India and Russia are among the countries that emit the greatest amount of carbon each year. China alone is responsible for more than one-quarter of all the world’s emissions. The impacts on the global climate have a devastating effect on  low and middle-income countries, especially subsistence farmers who rely on seasonal rains.

Both the UN and the World Bank have warned over the past few years that immediate action is necessary to stem the progress of climate change. Waiting will harm countries and cost lives.

The good news is that the use of coal to power the US has declined. Coal power plants are down from providing 55% of the country’s electricity in 2000 to 37% today. The average age of coal-fired plants is 42 years and many keep closing because of their costs, says the EPA.

All states are not equal when it comes to the implementation of the plan. New York state will have to reduce its emissions by 44%. The states that rely heavily on coal for power production, like Wyoming and West Virginia, will require cuts by less than 20%.

Washington Post

In the US, the announcement was met with both support and criticisms. The LA Times editorial board called the plan “pragmatic, smart and overdue.”

[T]he country can’t afford to ignore the problem posed by coal-fired plants. Global warming threatens to be an environmental catastrophe, and the U.S. must prevent as much of the damage as it can. As multiple recent studies have concluded, the cost of dealing with the worst effects of climate change will far outweigh the cost of preventing them.

Meanwhile, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), sent a letter to Obama that calls for him to reject the EPA’s proposal. Her plea was based on the impact it will have on the tens of thousands of people who are employed by the coal industry in her home state.

Since you announced your Global Climate Change Initiative in June 2013, I have consistently asked for your administration to carefully study the economic impact of proposed regulations…if your administration goes forward with a plan similar to the one expected by many published reports, it will have chosen these winners and losers without so much as listening to the opinions of the Americans who will be harmed.

While there is debate over the economic benefits and losses caused by the proposed plan, there are health gains to be made. The EPA touts that every $1 invested will lead to $7 in future health gains. Such claims are common in plans like this, but are often hard to calculate.

The EPA expects that fewer carbon emissions will lead to as many as 150,000 fewer asthma attacks each year. It even could save up to 6,600 lives. The benefits calculated in the investments are based on the fewer costs that are levied on the US healthcare system as well as the benefits of having healthier people (ie. they miss work less often).

That, coupled with the environmental benefits, are why the EPA thinks it is a good plan. Now it is a matter of getting the right political support, beating back business interests and staving off a likely attempt to nullify the plan through the US courts.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]