With the coming change of administration in the U.S., speculation on the future of the Clean Power Plan (CPP) is running high. During the campaign, the president-elect made his views on climate change—it’s a hoax perpetrated by China—perfectly clear; and, since the election, he has appointed people to key agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy (DOE)—who have, by word or action, expressed similar skepticism. The transition team has made a very public inquiry into the current work of DOE, targeting for special investigation those officials who have been engaged in climate-change-related activities. There is every reason, therefore, to conclude that the next president will act as these behaviors foretell, and cease all efforts that are dedicated to mitigating global warming. Foremost among them will be abandonment of the CPP.
It won’t necessarily be easy. The CPP is an adopted rule under federal law responding to a finding (upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) that carbon pollution endangers public health. A president lacks the authority to unilaterally withdraw it. It is true that the CPP has been “stayed”—that is, its implementation has been delayed pending judicial review—but supporters remain optimistic that it will survive scrutiny by the Supreme Court. The likelihood of this happening may be affected by the new president’s appointment of a justice to the ninth seat on the Court, which had been kept controversially vacant by the Republican-controlled Senate since the death of Antonin Scalia a year ago. In any event, we cannot expect the new administration to defend the CPP in court or to put much effort into implementing it, if indeed it is upheld.
It seems safe, then, to assume that the CPP will become dead paper, for the next four years at least. What does this mean for U.S. action on climate change? An optimist will say “Perhaps less than one might fear.” The reason for this is simple: the states.
The power of states
Climate change is, at its core, an energy problem, a problem of how we produce and use energy. The states have long recognized this and have led the clean energy revolution. The federal government has never set a comprehensive, coherent national energy policy. Yes, over the years, Congress has acted variously to support nuclear power and some renewables, the exploitation of domestic fossil-fuel resources, and the opening up of the electric grid to independent power producers; but, at the national level, there has been no real attempt at comprehensive reform to drive energy production and use toward the lowest cost and least environmentally harmful resources.
The states stepped into the breach. Under the powers reserved to them by the U.S. Constitution, these “laboratories of democracy” over the last forty years have filled the void created by federal inaction. They have recognized that environmental damage is a real cost of energy use and therefore made investment in end-use energy efficiency the law of the land, as the first resource to meet demand for energy services, not the last. They have developed and implemented programs for financing renewable technologies, until those technologies are able to compete on fair terms in the market. They have created new markets to provide not only electricity, but also the unique services—flexibility and balancing—that electricity production needs, because kilowatt-hours cannot yet be easily or economically stored. They have seen how technological change has made small-scale, distributed clean energy a reality, and made it possible for consumers to manage their demand in ways that benefit the system and save money. And they have implemented programs that put a price on greenhouse gas emissions and create revenue streams for direct investment in clean energy measures—that is, in end-use efficiency and renewables—that accelerate emissions reduction and drive down the costs of compliance. The cumulative national carbon effects of state actions are already projected to achieve nearly all of what the CPP would require by 2030.
These innovations predated the Clean Power Plan and, whatever its future, they will go on producing significant emissions reductions. The states will continue to act because public support for action is greater now than it ever has been. (In just 2016, for example, several states increased the required minimum percentage of electricity generated by renewables to be delivered to all customers.) But not all states have made progress, and it would be wrong to underestimate the consequences of the loss of the CPP. It imposes obligations on all states, and its absence will allow those that have been reluctant to act to remain so. This is too bad. The CPP is an inventive and balanced approach to addressing an urgent global threat, which cannot be ignored simply because one wishes it didn’t exist.
America’s leadership on climate change will suffer if the CPP is overturned. Other nations, most notably China, Germany, and India, will need to take on that extra leadership burden. Fortunately, they will have states—California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, New York, and Vermont, to name just a few—to turn to for help and, we hope, inspiration.
A version of this article originally appeared in chinadialogue.
Photo credit: Stefano Paltera, U.S Department of Energy Solar Decathlon