Washington takes big step in right direction on carbon emissions


President Barack Obama has finally put some meat on the bare bones of his long-standing commitment to tackle climate change. After the eight wasted years of the George W Bush administration and the gutless prevarications of his own first term, US policy has now taken a dramatic step forward with this week’s announcement that existing power stations will be required to reduce their carbon emissions by 30 per cent between now and 2030.

And given that nearly 40 per cent of US electricity demand is met by highly-polluting coal-fired plants, the challenge involved is clearly enormous – and the benefits equally significant, not just for the global climate but also for the health and wellbeing of Americans in general.

The Clean Power Plan, as the new regime is called, was announced by Gina McCarthy, adminstrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, who stressed the health benefits of cutting emissions. As Obama himself noted in a radio address on the issue, “right now, there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None. They can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t make sense.”

However, having failed to persuade a sceptical Congress to adopt any plan to deal with the climate crisis, the president has authorised the EPA to use its own powers under the Clean Air Act to impose the 2030 targets.

Environmentalists have hailed the move as historic, not least because it will immeasurably strengthen the US position in negotiations with the China and other major carbon-emiting countries in the run-up to the crucial UN climate conference in Paris towards the end of next year. But there has been strong opposition from the coal lobby, particularly in traditional mining states such as West Virginia, and shrill statements from professional climate change denialists who believe there is no justification for taking any action. Legal challenges to the EPA’s competence in this area have already been initiated and there will be battles ahead. But the world must acknowledge that Washington has taken a step in the right direction.