America’s battle over climate change – The Economist (blog)

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AMERICA’S most ambitious effort to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants is in danger. On February 9th the Supreme Court, divided 5-4 along partisan lines, put the brakes on the Clean Power Plan: a move that surprised many. Barack Obama’s flagship environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan forms the core of America’s recent commitments to cut emissions made at UN climate talks in Paris. By staying the rule, the court heeded the concerns of more than two dozen mostly red states and energy companies that oppose it. It is now on hold until the Supremes decide on the legal merits of the case this summer.

Power plants are America’s largest source of greenhouse gases, accounting for just under a third of all emissions. The Clean Power Plan, under the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), gives orders to each state that, when considered together, should amount to removing 870m tonnes of CO2 from emissions by power stations by 2030 (as measured against 2005 levels). The regulations give states some flexibility over how and when to cut emissions. But each one is required to submit plans by 2018 and to show some progress on them by 2022. If the goals are met, the reduction by 2030 will be akin to taking 80m cars off the road—helpful but not revolutionary.

States, utilities and mining companies have declared the Clean Power Plan too much, too soon. And more than half of the Supreme Court justices seem to agree. “We are thrilled that the Supreme Court realized the rule’s immediate impact and froze its implementation,” trilled the attorney-general of West Virginia, one of the states leading the suit, after the court issued its stay. Greener types argue that the delay flies in the face of larger trends toward clean energy: across America far more people already work in the solar industry than do in coal.

The Supreme Court’s ruling does not overturn the Clean Power Plan. But it is an unexpected blow to its supporters. Although compliance with the regulation is not required until 2022, the deadline for submitting initial plans to cut back on emissions was supposed to be September. (States also had the option to ask for more time then.) That date will now almost certainly need to be pushed back. “We’re disappointed the rule has been stayed,” says one EPA spokesman, “millions of people are demanding we confront the risks posed by climate change.”

The legal basis for the regulation was thought to lie in a 2007 ruling by the Supreme Court, which declared carbon dioxide a pollutant, thereby placing it under the EPA’s remit. In 2013 the court upheld the agency’s permitting rules for greenhouse gases; in 2014 they supported the EPA’s regulation of pollution that crosses over state lines. But the agency was also rebuffed for its overreach last year: the Supreme Court chastised it for regulating mercury, arsenic and other toxins emitted by power plants without taking proper account of the costs. Yet the Clean Power Plan did seem to be more popular. Only last month a federal appeals court refused to freeze the regulation.

Given the red cluster of states challenging the rules, and the partisan split in the court, the surprising stay by the Supreme Court may spark political fires in the coming days. Few Republican presidential candidates have anything sensible to say about climate change at all, let alone the need to curb greenhouse gases to prevent it. The Republican winner of the New Hampshire primary, Donald Trump, says the Chinese came up with global warming to sabotage American industry; Ted Cruz, the victor in Iowa, reckons lefties cooked it up. By contrast, Hillary Clinton wants to introduce more ambitious plans for solar power than any president before her. A legal battle over the Clean Power Plan may set the stage yet for a larger political one on environmental policy—a first in a presidential race.

America’s battle over climate change – The Economist (blog)

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