US Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards Matter: Global Implications

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The Obama Administration announced the single most important thing the U.S. can do right now to fight climate change – enact strong carbon pollution standards for America’s power plants. These power plants are the largest single source of uncontrolled climate pollution in the U.S. so enacting strong rules is critical to helping meet the U.S. climate target and securing strong international action on climate change. This proposal sends a powerful signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is prepared to walk the talk. The U.S. isn’t acting alone as other key countries are also taking concrete steps to control their carbon pollution.

Some commentators have essentially said that this action doesn’t matter. Their logic essentially boils down to two false perspectives – that U.S. cuts in its power sector emissions don’t matter in the context of global efforts to address climate change and that the rest of the world, particularly China and India, isn’t doing anything to curb their pollution. Both assumptions are wrong so let’s look at them in a bit of detail.

Solar panels on rooftops in Shanghai, China (Courtesy of jcrakow)

Cuts in U.S. power sector emissions matter a lot. Whenever I meet with senior climate officials from around the world the first three questions I always get are: “what is status of U.S. domestic climate action, what will be done in the power sector, and will the U.S. meet its climate target”. These questions usually come after I’ve attempted to tee up a discussion about the state-of-play in their country. So it isn’t an overstatement to say that the world is closely watching what the U.S. does to curb its carbon pollution. This action signals to the world that the U.S. is now seriously committed to the international effort to address climate change.

Cuts in U.S. power sector emissions also matter in terms of the needed carbon pollution cuts necessary to address global warming. The U.S. is currently the second biggest emitter of carbon pollution and by far one of the biggest on a per person basis. The U.S. power sector accounts for around 16% of the world’s power plant carbon pollution and would be the seventh largest emitter if it were a country – close to India’s total emissions (the fourth largest emitter) and larger than Brazil’s emissions.* Cutting emissions from any country that is in the top ten matters so to pretend otherwise doesn’t make sense.

The U.S. is a world leader and the largest economy in the world – U.S. action on climate change matters a lot.

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Rest of world is acting on climate change. Back in 1997 opponents of climate change ran a major advertising campaign saying: “It’s not global and it won’t work”. So it isn’t a new line of argument when the opponents claim that the U.S. shouldn’t act because others aren’t. But the dynamic has changed a lot in the past 16 years as countries accounting for more than 80% of the world’s global warming pollution now have firm commitments to cut their pollution. China, India, Europe, South Korea, or Mexico are not waiting for the U.S. to act; they are acting at home to address their carbon pollution.

In 2013, China invested more than $54 billion in clean energy – one-third more than the U.S. The country has become the world leader in installed wind power. It installed more solar in 2013 than the U.S. has installed in all of the years combined. And anyone that opens a paper knows that the country is grappling with massive air pollution challenges that have now clearly put a spotlight on the need for the country to finally grapple with its pollution from coal. In fact, NRDC is working with leading Chinese institutions to set a strong, binding, enforceable cap on coal consumption in order to help China wean itself off coal earlier and faster. And recent statements from a leading Chinese climate advisor points out that China will put in place an absolute limit on its emissions in its next five-year plan (to run from 2016-2021). The air pollution debate has opened up a clear recognition that the country will finally put in place caps on total coal consumption.

From 2009-2013, India invested $39 billion in wind, solar, and other sources of clean energy. In just a few short years the country has become a major player in solar development. Since 2010 they’ve gone from having almost no solar to 2 gigawatts – about as much as California has installed. The country has plans to keep growing “Solar India” with a national goal to install almost 20 gigawatts by 2020. The country is a leader in wind energy installation. And more clean energy solutions are being deployed every day in the country as more Indian states are adopting mandatory building codes to significantly reduce their energy use.

Claims that no other country is acting don’t stand up to the reality. They might have been true 16 years ago, but that claim definitely isn’t true today.

Opponents would also have you believe that acting on climate will produce nothing but pain for the U.S. As NRDC’s President said: “I know that’s not true. Our nation has the ingenuity to confront the climate crisis, and we are already on our way.”  

Proposed U.S. power plant carbon pollution standard will help in international efforts to address climate change. Next year countries will finalize a new round of international climate commitments that will include additional firm actions from all the major players. This standard comes at a critical time to show that the U.S. is serious and credible. After all, the U.S. should never be in the position of trying to tell other countries to: “do as I say, not as I do”. It doesn’t work with my children and it doesn’t work with countries. The U.S. must be in the position to say: “I’m acting at home, so you can too”.

Action by the U.S. at home is a cornerstone of international efforts to address climate change. Adopting a strong carbon pollution standard for power plants would send a powerful signal to the world.   


* Source: Data from World Resources Institute’s Climate Analysis Indicator Tool. Using 2011 data, including emissions from land-use change (e.g., deforestation) as that is the most recently available for global emissions by sector.

** Photo courtesy of jcrakow, under Creative Commons License.