Climate Compass Blog

Clean power progress will continue despite Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan may slow, but certainly does not stop, progress toward a cleaner power system in the United States.

There’s no telling how the legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan, which were always expected, will ultimately play out. But here are a few important points to keep in mind:

The Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases is settled. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that EPA has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. It affirmed that ruling 8-0 in 2011 when it rejected nuisance suits against greenhouse gas emitters, ruling that “the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants.”  

What’s at issue is whether the particular way EPA has chosen to exercise that authority in regulating carbon emissions from power plants is appropriate.  Because there was little precedent to work from, EPA had to chart the direction, and did so with a very careful eye to the legal defensibility of its approach. 

The Clean Power Plan has already generated tremendous learning about the practicalities of decarbonizing our power sector. In crafting the rule, EPA engaged extensively with states, utilities and others (and was widely praised for doing so). The adoption of the rule last summer has triggered similar state-level conversations across the country. Even states that are suing to overturn the rule have been actively considering how to implement it.

As a result, we all know a lot more today about the challenges of cutting carbon and the smartest strategies for doing it cost-effectively. That knowledge will be of tremendous value going forward, with or without the Clean Power Plan.

Nations need to agree to reduce aviation emissions

Image courtesy International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

The new Paris Agreement provides a broad global framework to strengthen efforts to address climate change. Now, governments are working toward another agreement on a critical issue Paris doesn’t directly address – reducing greenhouse gas emissions from aviation.

The Paris Agreement, negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ties together national efforts pledged by more than 180 countries to limit or reduce their own emissions. However, international aviation is inherently a cross-border activity, and a global approach to reducing emissions from aviation is being negotiated separately under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). A new sector-wide agreement is expected this October.

Emissions from the aviation sector comprised 2 percent of global emissions in 2013, but that share is set to expand rapidly by 2050 without policy interventions. In 2010, the aviation industry carried 2.4 billion passengers and 40 million metric tons of goods. By 2050, that could grow to 16 billion passengers and 400 million metric tons of goods.

2015 was the warmest year on record

Image courtesy NOAA

This visualization from NOAA shows much warmer than average or record warm temperatures across much of the globe in 2015, the warmest year on record.

The data are in, and 2015 was officially the warmest year globally ever recorded. We’ve been keeping temperature records since 1880. The last time the record was broken? 2014.

What’s interesting is just how much warmer 2015 was. The observed annual average surface temperature was more than 1.8° F (1° C) above the 19th century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That’s already half the warming countries have agreed to as the international limit.

And 2015 was about a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit warmer than 2014. That might seem small, but it’s actually huge when compared to the year-to-year differences observed in the record.

A strong El Niño, when the surface ocean in the Eastern Pacific basin warms, contributed to the record warmth of 2015. But even compared to other El Niño years, 2015 set records. The agencies reporting the data attribute this to the long-term warming trend due to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

As with all climate and weather data, the 2015 data shows some variability. Not all locations set high temperature records, and parts of the North Atlantic Ocean actually set a cold temperature record.

In the contiguous United States, 2015 was the second warmest year on record, with 2012 still holding the top spot. It was the 19th consecutive year that the annual average U.S. temperature was more than the 20th century average.

Building on the climate successes of 2015

2015 may well prove the warmest year globally on record, but it also saw unprecedented momentum on climate solutions – most notably, the completion of the U.S. Clean Power Plan and a landmark global climate agreement in Paris.

These two successes reflect growing public support globally and in the United States for stronger climate action, as well as rising investment and innovation by business toward low-carbon solutions.

Now we must turn the momentum of last year’s successes toward the next set of challenges – like putting these major new policies into action.

Here in the U.S., states have until September to tell the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) how they plan to implement the Clean Power Plan (or to request more time). Most observers think the courts are unlikely to block the Clean Power Plan while legal challenges are heard. So we expect state planning will proceed and are encouraged to see so many states exploring market-based approaches.

Internationally, countries must now put the Paris agreement into place. A high-level signing ceremony is set for Earth Day (April 22) in New York. And in May, governments will begin fleshing out details of the new Paris architecture, including critical transparency provisions and the process to periodically strengthen countries’ individual contributions.

Just after Paris, the United States submitted its latest biennial report, showing how current policies can put the country on track for its 2020 target (reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels), and lay the foundation for meeting the 2025 target (reducing emissions 26-28 percent). The report showed that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined 10 percent since 2005, while GDP is up 10 percent. For the first time, GDP has grown while energy use has fallen – about 2 percent.

Here are other things to watch for domestically and internationally in 2016:

Climate agreement signals to business to invest, innovate

A panel of business leaders discusses innovation and investment to meet climate challenges at a C2ES side event at COP 21 in Paris.

Fourteen major U.S.-based companies signed a C2ES-organized statement earlier this year urging the adoption of a new global climate agreement that would get all the major economies on board, provide stronger long-term direction, and hold countries accountable.

On December 12, 2015, nations reached a landmark climate agreement in Paris that accomplished exactly that aim.  

The Paris Agreement commits all countries to contribute their best efforts, sets up a system to hold them accountable, and promises stronger efforts to address the causes and consequences of climate change in the years ahead. It sends a signal to ramp up investment and innovation in a clean energy and clean transportation economy by:

  • Providing Long-Term Direction – The agreement calls for achieving a “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” This goal, which is another way of expressing a progressive decarbonization of the global economy, provides the clear signal to markets to shift long-term investments toward energy efficiency and other lower-carbon alternatives.
  • Addressing Competitiveness – All major economies support the new agreement, which commits all parties to put forward their best efforts through binding commitments to submit and maintain nationally determined contributions (NDCs), to regularly report on them, and to strengthen them over time. More policy clarity and visibility will ease concerns about global competitiveness and about potentially double-counting carbon reductions.