Today the Environmental Protection Agency will finalize its rule to dramatically cut carbon pollution from existing power plants. This signifies a “historic step in the fight against climate change” according to the Obama Administration, which called out the problematic effects of climate change, such as hotter summers, rising sea levels, and deeper droughts, as motivators in finalizing the rule.

The final set of regulations, called the Clean Power Plan, mandates that states must collectively curb their carbon emissions. By the year 2030, emissions must be 32 percent lower than 2005 emission levels. Compared to the draft, the final rule intensifies the transition to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind—the goal is to reach 28 percent of energy generation from these sources—and gives states longer to comply with the new regulations.

Watch President Obama explain the motivation for the regulations in this short video:

According to the best available research, carbon dioxide emissions are warming the planet and imperiling wildlife such as birds, while particulate byproducts of energy productionsmog, soot, and heavy metals—also contribute to public health risks such as asthma and heat-related illness.

Although the rule sets up a target emissions reduction for each state, states have flexibility when it comes to how those reductions happen. Options include:

  • increasing efficiency at existing plants;
  • increasing the share of renewable and low-carbon energy (all low-carbon electricity generation technologies, including natural gas, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage can play a role in state plans, according to the White House);
  • initiating market-based systems such as a carbon tax;
  • and setting up cap-and-trade agreements among pairs or groups of states.

The model has potential: The existing Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) among Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont reports it has reduced carbon pollution from the power sector by more than 40 percent since 2005, while the regional economy has grown 8 percent (adjusted for inflation).

The road to compliance with the Clean Power Plan will not be entirely smooth, however. Several governors, including Mike Pence of Indiana, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Greg Abbott of Texas, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have threatened not to submit a plan for their states to comply with the regulation. A few attorney generals have also hinted they will take the EPA to court. Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general of West Virginia, said on Friday, “Once the EPA finalizes this regulation, West Virginia will go to court, and we will challenge it. We think this regulation is terrible for the consumers of the state of West Virginia. It’s going to lead to reduced jobs, higher electricity rates, and really will put stress on the reliability of the power grid.”

The rule comes at an important moment globally as world governments prepare for the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties (COP21) starting Nov. 30 in Paris. The goal is to establish a binding emissions reductions agreement. Countries will spend the late summer and fall preparing and submitting their individual emissions reduction plans.  

In her own video about the rule, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy described the Clean Power Plan as an important signal to global economies during the lead-in to COP21. “We’re confident other countries will step up and make an ambitious and lasting agreement on climate.”

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