Climate Solutions

What Does the Supreme Court's Clean Power Plan Decision Mean?

The fight over the plan to cut carbon pollution will continue in lower courts. Here are the details.

Yesterday the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to temporarily block enforcement of the Clean Power Plan, a set of regulations that will cut carbon pollution from power plants. The action by the high court was unexpected and called “highly unusual” by several news outlets and environmental groups, since it comes while lower courts are still considering the merits of legal challenges. One of these lower courts recently declined to delay the carbon rule.

Electricity-generating power plants account for 37 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

What is the Clean Power Plan?

The Environmental Protection Agency published the Clean Power Plan in August 2015. The rules require states to cut carbon pollution from electric power plants by 32 percent by the year 2030, using 2005 emissions levels as a baseline. The plan gives states broad leeway to decide how to meet these goals, including strategies like increasing solar and wind energy, boosting energy efficiency, and making cap-and-trade agreements among states.

The Clean Power Plan is one of the major ways the U.S. could meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, a deal made by nearly 200 nations to keep global warming at or below two degrees Celsius.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The Supreme Court placed a temporary stay on the Clean Power Plan while lower courts deliberate. It did not rule on the merits of the legal challenges or on the legality of the Clean Power Plan as a whole. Some states have asked the Supreme Court to hear their challenges to the carbon rules, but the court has not yet announced whether it will accept or decline.

What happens next?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will hear arguments on the Clean Power Plan in June and is expected to rule later this year. It’s possible that after that ruling, the case could be sent back to the Supreme Court. While these court battles continue, states are no longer required to submit plans for meeting the carbon reduction goals. 

However, the EPA says it will continue to work with states to cut power plant emissions in the meantime, and some states are already on track to meet the carbon cuts laid out in the plan. And the Washington Post points out that clean energy continues to grow, with electricity from renewables projected to increase by nearly 10 percent in 2016. 

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