On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that will hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. It is an important decision for the future of climate change, especially as the Biden Administration had ambitious goals regarding reducing carbon emissions.
In a 6-3 vote, the conservative-majority court sided in favor of the plaintiffs who brought the West Virginia v. EPA case some seven years ago—primarily a group of Republican state attorneys general who believed that the federal agency was overstepping its authority after it issued a plan to curb power plant emissions. During those years, however, as case was moved through the justice system—rendering the EPA’s plan unenforceable—the power sector’s emissions declined anyway. The question now is whether emissions will continue to fall given that the energy industry has certainty that the federal government can’t impose future regulations.
While the history of this case is complicated, it is rooted in a policy former President Barack Obama announced back in 2015. This policy, known as the Clean Power Plan (or Clean Power Plan), was designed to decrease power sector emission levels by about one-third by 2030 from 2005 levels. However, before the policy was able to have its day in court a new administration came in and in 2019, President Donald Trump completely repealed Clean Power Plan. (Even though this policy was not implemented, it was still a case in court. Trump then issued his own EPA policy, which was only applicable to coal-fired plants two years later. There were more lawsuits against Trump.This Another coalition of predominantly Democratic states endorsed the new policy. The federal court dismissed it, opening the door for Joe Biden to become the next President. He stated that he wouldn’t revive Clean Power Plan and would create a new plan.
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All the legal back and forth was taking place, but gradually, emissions from power plants were decreasing due to their shift to natural gas or renewables. The 2021 carbon dioxide emission levels were 19% lower than in 2015, when the Clean Power Plan came into effect, and down 36% from the peak level of their 2007, which was 7 years ago. In part due to investor pressures, state-level environmental policies and the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. electricity sector exceeded its goals a decade earlier than expected (though progress was uneven among states, as per a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, an independent watchdog).
Biden may find this momentum to be impressive, but not enough to achieve his carbon-free goal. The Energy and Policy Institute noted in a late 2020 report that only a small number of utilities are on track to meeting Biden’s 2035 zero-carbon goals. The administration can’t rely solely on EPA enforcement. It must look at other factors, such as investors, who may be disinclined or unable to invest in fossil-fuel based projects and state policies that are environmentally friendly.
“Though it’s harder today than it was yesterday, the U.S. still has paths forward to address climate change,” says David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute and author of the report. “For one, Congress could act. But I think the most likely action to accelerate utilities’ transition to clean energy will come from the states, since that’s what’s been happening to date.”
Still, as strong as those forces are right now, experts say they’re not going to propel the energy industry to zero emissions in just over a decade’s time. A September report from Wood Mackenzie estimated that the U.S. would reach 66% clean energy by 2035 due to “technological limitations, policy design, market structures, and even the United States’ political and constitutional foundations.”
“That would be a stretch to go to zero carbon by 2035,” says Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “It’s good to have aspirational goals, and all the way to zero by 2035 would be wonderful, but I don’t see it happening.”
He explains that the drastic drop in emissions over the past few years is mainly due to the shift away from coal. Now the challenge will be moving away from natural gas while also building up the technology to support renewables—both of which are more difficult than decommissioning coal plants. “You can’t be complacent and assume that the downward slope will continue at the same angle,” he says. “There are encouraging signs, but we’re running out of time to deal with all of this.”
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