The Supreme Court made a surprising decision on Tuesday, voting 5-4 to suspend President Obama’s signature emissions reduction policy—the Clean Power Plan—until its fate is decided in district (and likely the Supreme) court. Under this set of regulations, the EPA requires states to cut enough carbon emissions from power plants to reduce by 30 percent the national average amount of emissions per megawatt hour generated in 2030 as compared to 2005 levels. Immediately after the EPA finalized this plan last June, states began fighting back against it in court (27 states in total have filed lawsuits), bucking what they perceived as a federal overreach.
The DC district court is hearing these challenges and oral arguments are scheduled for the beginning of June. But the Supreme Court stepped in this week to say the EPA can’t enforce these regulations until their fate has been decided in court. This is a huge blow to what was supposed to be one of the President’s signature policies meant to combat climate change, but it has broader implications than just Obama’s green legacy. It could also imperil the UN climate agreement signed in Paris this past December, as Reuters reports:
The Paris accord requires countries to set and meet their own national targets to reduce carbon emissions, and the United States presented the Clean Power Plan as a major step to shrink power plant emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels over the next 15 years [. . .]
Outgoing French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was praised for his smooth chairmanship that brought about a deal in Paris, was quoted by French government officials saying the Supreme Court’s move was “not good news.”
President Obama knows he can’t rely on legislation to craft climate change policy—that dream died in the summer of 2010—and he has attempted to circumvent the resistant Republican-controlled Congress by piggybacking on the EPA’s ability to regulate CO2 as part of the Clean Air Act. This is Obama’s only play, and was the only way he could demonstrate to the Paris delegates that the U.S. was committed to cutting emissions. But its major flaw—that these regulations are subject to legal challenges—has been exposed by the Supreme Court this week.
The White House has already come out reassuring the world that the U.S. can still reduce emissions through other policy tools, chief among them a long-term tax credit extension recently given to renewable energy producers. In an attempt to downplay the severity of the court’s decision, White House spokesperson Charles Schultz said that “[the] inclusion of those tax credits is going to have more impact over the short term than the Clean Power Plan.”
However, realistically, America’s climate commitments look awfully meager without the Clean Power Plan, and the developing world (and the rest of the developed world, for that matter) has to be watching what’s happening to this regulation with great concern. The Paris agreement was already a watered-down compromise, and the fact that the United States is now stumbling in its attempt to meet the climate commitments it made is a bad omen.
Moreover, if the Clean Power Plan ends up a bust, the U.S. won’t face any international consequences for its failure to keep its emissions reduction promises. It took all of a month and a half to see why the Paris deal’s lack of an enforcement mechanism is so problematic.