President Obama has used his executive power to put limits on carbon emissions.

3 June 2014 — President Obama has announced rules to reduce carbon emissions in the power sector by 30 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, in the first ever limits to be placed on emissions in US history.

Companies will have flexibility in how reductions are met, with states having to submit a plan to the federal government by June 2016 on how they are to reduce average emissions per megawatt-hour of electricity. Those who do not will have a plan enforced by the Environmental Protection Authority.

Those who have already invested in carbon reduction programs will be able to build on current programs. While the main driver will be emissions standards at power plants, the government has provided flexibility in how reductions are achieved, with a suite of measures not limited to demand-side energy efficiency programs, renewable energy standards, co-firing or switching to natural gas, transmission efficiency improvements, energy storage technology, retirements, expanding renewables or nuclear, market-based trading programs, and energy conservation programs.

Since the baseline level of 2005, carbon dioxide emissions of power plants have already reduced by 13 per cent, according to Environmental Protection Authority data, so the industry is nearly halfway to the target, with 17 years to meet the new standard.

The move forms part of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan, which also includes:

  • strengthening energy efficiency standards for equipment and buildings
  • emission limits on new coal and gas plant, which will require any new coal generators to include carbon capture and storage
  • stronger regulation to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production
  • emissions standards for heavy trucks—responsible for 20 per cent of American transport emissions—for implementation by 2018
  • reducing the use of super-potent hydrofluorocarbons through regulation and developing climate-friendly substitutes in airconditioning, refrigeration and other uses
  • requiring all federal agencies to source 20 per cent of their electricity from renewables by 2020

“Climate change, fuelled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

“EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source – power plants.

“By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids. We don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment – our action will sharpen America’s competitive edge, spur innovation, and create jobs.”

Some commentators, including economist Nicholas Stern, said the plan and similar global action would not be enough to limit temperature increases to 2°C, while the US Chamber of Commerce has said the plan will cost $50 billion a year in foregone growth and 224,000 lost jobs every year for the next 15 year.

Though the Natural Resources Defense Council last week said the EPA laws could create 274,000 new jobs in the energy efficiency sector by 2020.

Health impacts

The changes will have large impacts on air quality and public health, which the Obama Administration is keen to push.

The government expects to avoid 2700 to 6600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children by 2030, with climate and health benefits of US$55 billion to US$93 billion.

The health findings are backed up by a report recently out of Syracuse University, which found that setting strong carbon emissions reductions on power plants would lead to a reduction in air pollutants that can affect people’s health; damage forests, crops and lakes; and harm fish and wildlife.

“When power plants limit carbon dioxide emissions, they can also release less sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants,” said Dr Charles Driscoll of Syracuse University. “One of the policy options we analysed cut emissions of these non-carbon pollutants by approximately 75,000 tonnes per year by 2020.

“We know that these other pollutants contribute to increased risk of premature death and heart attacks, as well as increased incidence and severity of asthma and other health effects. They also contribute to acid rain, ozone damage to trees and crops, and the accumulation of toxic mercury in fish.

“This new analysis shows that there is a real opportunity to help reverse decades of environmental damage from power plant emissions and to improve human health.”

The findings may be on the conservative side, however. The World Health Organization recently found air pollution was killing twice as many as previously thought – responsible for one in eight global deaths.

In Australia, a recent report from Environmental Justice Australia estimated that more than 3000 people die from air pollution in the country each year, and according to the Australian Medical Association our air quality standards lag behind international standards.