International Climate Implications of Supreme Court Ruling on Clean Power Plan


The recent Supreme Court decision to temporarily pause implementation of the U.S. Clean Power Plan doesn't mean the end of U.S. climate action, the end of the Paris climate agreement, or the demise of national-level climate action in key countries around the world. I know the court's decision raises a lot of questions, as I've received a number of inquiries from international climate policymakers, but it is important to look at the situation with a clear perspective and not get caught up in the rhetoric (or some media reports). The U.S. is continuing to reduce its emissions and the international move to low-carbon economies continues.

Some commentators are raising doubts about the ability of the U.S. to live up to its climate commitments and some news reports give the impression that things will stall internationally and in key countries. So let's add a dose of reality to those discussions.

Supreme Court didn't "end" the Clean Power Plan. The Court put a "stay" on the Clean Power Plan, but did not issue any opinion or make any determination on whether the Clean Power Plan is legal under the Clean Air Act. The action now moves to a lower court, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, which will consider briefs and oral arguments on June 2, 2016 to review whether the Clean Power Plan is legal, and we could get that court's decision and their written decision as early as late this summer. The "stay" does not prevent or prohibit states from continuing to plan for compliance with the Clean Power Plan. A number of states have made clear that they plan to continue planning for compliance with the Clean Power Plan. We always expected that polluters would drag the Clean Power Plan to court, that the legal battle would take some time, and that it might ultimately end up in the Supreme Court. But as my colleague said: "We are confident the courts will ultimately uphold the Clean Power Plan on its merits."

The first compliance obligations for power plants under the Clean Power Plan do not come due until 2022, and this case will work its way through the courts well before then. As a result, the legal issues will be resolved well in advance of 2025, when the U.S. climate target - to cut emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels - for the Paris Agreement is to be met. As the EPA spokesperson said:

"We're disappointed the rule has been stayed, but you can't stay climate change and you can't stay climate action. We believe strongly in this rule and we will continue working with our partners to address carbon pollution."

U.S. Climate Action continues. The U.S. has been implementing a variety of policies to reduce emissions across the economy. As a result, U.S. energy sector emissions are already more than 10 percent below 2005 levels as of the end of 2015. And in the final hours of 2015, two new sets of policies were enacted that will have a huge impact on emissions from U.S. energy sources. First, enacted into law was a five-year extension of renewable energy tax credits that will help the renewable power sector - solar photovoltaics, wind farms, and others - continue their significant expansion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Second, the Department of Energy has finalized new energy-efficiency standards covering a wide range of residential, commercial, and industrial equipment. These new efficiency standards will significantly reduce energy consumption and prevent several million tons of global warming pollution.

Clean energy deployment in the power sector continues. To meet the U.S. climate targets in 2020 and 2025, U.S. electric sector emissions need to decline significantly. Renewables are booming, energy efficiency is taking hold, and other dynamics in the electric sector are cutting power sector emissions. So even long before the Clean Power Plan's first compliance deadlines in 2022, US power sector emissions are down around 18 percent below 2005 levels according to data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. As my colleague said: "The electricity sector has embarked on an unstoppable shift from its high-pollution, dirty-fueled past to a safer, cleaner-powered future, and the stay cannot reverse that trend." Even since the Supreme Court issued its stay, a number of major power companies have signaled that they will continue to move forward with shifts towards lower carbon sources of electricity.

Climate action in key countries continues and the Paris Agreement still moves forward. In a historic move, countries agreed to adopt a new international climate agreement that sets in motion stronger climate action by all major emitters over the coming decades. A cornerstone of that agreement was enshrining and regularly updating national climate targets in the agreement. Leadership by the U.S. has been critical over the past year to help advance climate action around the world. But other countries developed their own national targets based on their perception that action to address climate-changing pollution is in their own self-interest, and their commitments reflect robust domestic policy debates about what it is achievable and desirable for them. China and India provide prime examples.

There is broad recognition by Chinese officials that the country needs to reduce its coal consumption both to clean up its air and cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Coal accounts for 50-60 percent of China's fine particulate matter and 80 percent of its CO2 energy-related CO2 emissions. Addressing China's air pollution has the side-benefit of helping to address climate change. Similarly India is embarking a major national effort to build 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022. This target was announced by Prime Minister Modi well in advance of Paris. At the same time, meeting the solar energy target will generate over a million jobs and help India meet its energy needs through its massive low-cost renewable energy potential.


The Supreme Court's temporary pause of Clean Power Plan implementation is an unfortunate turn of events. But despite what some might be saying, U.S. and international climate action continues. The fundamental dynamics driving climate action around the world remain unchanged.