President Obama's new climate change rules are no panacea to global warming and won't turn the US into a green economy overnight. Still, their importance, both domestically and internationally, can't be overestimated.
Rhetorically, at least, climate change has been a key issue for Barack Obama right from the start. He made it a central political topic during his first presidential campaign back in 2008, promising to make the US the global leader on environmental issues again, should he get elected. But after he did win the White House, he first bungled the historic Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 and then dithered away his first term without making any significant progress on the issue.
With the UN's climate summit in Paris in December, viewed by many as the last chance for the international community to stave off dire global warming scenarios, fast approaching and his legacy in mind, Obama on the home stretch of his presidency is now finally trying to make good on what he promised seven years ago.
Obama's Clean Power Plan, which was originally announced last year, will for the first time label carbon dioxide a pollutant and establish national rules for carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants for every state. Reaching the proposed goal to cut carbon emissions from US power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 would accelerate the phasing out of coal-fired plants, a key source of US carbon emissions.
Key puzzle piece
While it is true that due to the recession and the fracking boom, which led to cheaper natural gas prices, many US states are already well on track to reach the proposed emissions limits even without the new law, many others are not. It is, however, also true that, given the progress already made, the Clean Power Plan alone would only make a small dent in the overall US carbon emission trajectory.
That's why just a few weeks ago, the Obama administration proposed tougher fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty truck tractors and trailers. It also announced stricter energy efficiency standards for home appliances, like ovens and dishwashers. Obama's Clean Power Plan, therefore, must be viewed as one important legislative piece in a larger climate change puzzle game. Individually each of those schemes will be too little to move the needle on emissions, but combined they could have a significant impact on curbing US carbon output.
While its projected carbon reductions are unlikely to make the Clean Power Plan a game changer, its symbolic importance might.
First, because the new law targets the cornerstone of US energy production - utility companies - and forces them to rethink their strategy and energy generation. Second, it puts the issue of climate change squarely back on the political agenda in the upcoming presidential election season and forces all candidates, especially the Republican hopefuls, to take a stance on the issue whether they want to or not.
And third, by launching its most ambitious effort yet to curb carbon emissions, the world's biggest economy and the world's second-largest carbon polluter has upped the ante on other countries to follow suit ahead of the Paris climate summit. China, India and the EU should take note.
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