Paris Sans Trump: Can We Meet Paris Commitments Without the Clean Power Plan?

With fossil-fuel-loving climate skeptic Donald Trump in the White House and Congress dominated by like-minded Republicans, environmentalists have given up hope of the federal government following through on President Obama’s climate mitigation and environmental promises. But just because Trump has rescinded the Clean Power Plan and is promising to bring back the coal industry doesn’t mean that Americans have to give up on leading the world out of the climate abyss.

Paris climate agreement
Obama administration Secretary of State John Kerry signs the Paris climate accord with his grand daughter in tow last April. Credit: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

The landmark Paris climate agreement forged in December 2015 and signed by 175 countries to date (including the world’s largest carbon polluters: China, the U.S., Russia and India) aims to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100 in order to stave off cataclysmic climate change. The Obama administration’s leadership on the issue helped the nations of the world come together for the sake of planetary health.

Obama’s strategy for meeting our Paris commitments, the Clean Power Plan, hinged on cleaning up the domestic electricity sector, which today accounts for almost a third of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. By pressuring states to phase out coal-fired power plants — the high-emission, low-hanging fruit — in favor of natural gas and more renewables, the Obama White House hoped to get the U.S. close to its Paris goals while minimizing overall economic trauma (the already fading coal industry notwithstanding).

But putting so many of our emissions reduction eggs in one basket — overhauling or phasing out coal-fired power plants — proved politically treacherous. In late 2015, 27 states filed suit in federal court questioning the constitutionality of new Clean Power Plan-imposed mandates coming down from Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency. In filing suit, the plaintiffs, led by then Oklahoma AG and now Trump EPA head Scott Pruitt, painted the Clean Power Plan as a bogeyman representing federal overstepping. In essence, Pruitt and company took the anti-federalist high road, arguing that states should be able to decide for themselves if and how they want to meet their own emissions reduction goals – despite several decades worth of precedent where the federal government set the targets and the states decided how to comply.

Clean Power Plan
Donald Trump’s executive order cancelling the emissions-busting Clean Power Plan means the U.S. will have to look much harder for ways to cut emissions back to levels consistent with our commitment to the Paris climate accord. Credit: Michael Vadon, FlickrCC

But in late March, a year and a half and exactly one inauguration after the states initially filed suit, the question became moot when President Trump issued an executive order cancelling the Clean Power Plan, which had been waylaid in “judicial review” on its way to the Supreme Court. Rhodium Group quickly reported that without the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. would likely “achieve” emissions cuts of around 14% below 2005 levels by 2025 — not the 25% we committed to in Paris.

While the situation looks grim — if the U.S. can’t meet its Paris commitments, why should other larger emitters bother? — environmentalists aren’t giving up just yet. Maybe we can meet our overall Paris emissions reduction commitments anyway — even without the Clean Power Plan.

After all, market forces are conspiring against the coal plants the Obama administration was trying to phase out anyway, and climate-friendly municipal and state policies combined with socially responsible private sector initiatives and the actions of millions of concerned individuals could add up to significant emissions reductions despite lack of federal action.

For starters, at least 21 of the 27 states which joined the suit against EPA in opposition to the Clean Power Plan are on track to meet the proposed rule’s 2024 emissions reduction targets with existing plants and planned investments, according to a 2015 analysis by consulting firm M.J. Bradley & Associates for the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund. (Meanwhile, 18 of the remaining 23 American states sided with EPA in the suit and are on board with Clean Power Plan-approved fossil fuel emissions busting.) 

Meanwhile, electric utilities across the country are well on their way to transitioning away from coal anyway, thanks to cheap and abundant natural gas coming out of huge domestic and Canadian hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) operations. (While natural gas is decidedly still a fossil fuel, burning it to generate electricity outputs 70-80% fewer carbon emissions than coal per megawatt hour.)

According to Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for hundreds of investor-owned utilities such as Duke Energy, PG&E, Southern Co. and Exelon, the power sector has cut carbon emissions by 21 percent since 2005 and is well on its way to even more significant reductions soon given plans to retire some 82 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants by 2024.

Clean Power Plan
Prong Horn Antelope graze on the prairie at Duke Energy’s 99-megawatt Campbell Hill Windpower Project near Casper, Wyoming.

North Carolina-based Duke Energy, the ninth largest electric utility in the nation in terms of numbers of customers served, has been a leader in transitioning away from coal, investing upwards of $9 billion to retire 40 of its older coal-fired power plants across the Carolinas and the Midwest and replacing them with lower- and zero- emission alternatives. According to company spokesman Tom Williams, Duke expects an additional 34% decrease in coal generation and a 25% increase in natural gas generation between 2015 and 2030.

“More than 40 percent of the electricity we generated in 2015 came from carbon-free sources such as nuclear, hydro, wind and solar,” says company spokesman Tom Williams, adding that Duke’s future plans include larger investments in renewable energy and battery storage. “Regardless of the legal outcome of the Clean Power Plan or national carbon reduction goals, we remain focused on building on our progress to reduce emissions and invest in energy technologies that benefit our customers, communities and the environment.”

While Duke may be out front on the transition to a cleaner-burning future, its recent progress toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions — the company’s CO2 output is down 30 percent since 2005 — isn’t that far ahead of the industry average. A September 2016 analysis by the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found that overall the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions are already 21% below 2005 levels.

Clean Power Plan
EDF’s Nicholas Bianco thinks American utilities are well positioned to comply with the cuts recommended under the ill-fated Clean Power Plan even if they claim the proposed law is too onerous.

“As a result, the sector is already two-thirds of the way towards meeting the 2030 emissions reduction requirements of the Clean Power Plan,” reports EDF’s Nicholas Bianco. “Even though these particular companies are opposing the Clean Power Plan in court, they are already using a variety of approaches to drive significant cost-effective reductions in climate pollution from their existing fossil-fuel powered units, thanks in large part to favorable economics for lower and zero-carbon generation.”

“These are the same practical, cost-effective methods that EPA identified as the ‘best system’ of emission reduction for climate pollution from power plants, and that formed the basis for the emission limits in the Clean Power Plan,” Bianco elaborates. “With these investment decisions, power companies are well positioned to comply with the Clean Power Plan, even though they are making claims to the contrary in court.”

And utilities aren’t the only companies committing to a cleaner burning future, as the private sector has finally started to line up in favor of carbon cutting almost across the board. To wit, more than 1,000 companies and investment firms have signed onto CERES’ Business Backs Low-Carbon USA statement affirming their commitment to addressing climate change through the implementation of the Paris climate accord and pledging to do their part in limiting overall global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (the overall 2100 goal of the Paris agreement). While many of the signers are small to mid-sized endeavors, 32 of them, such as DuPont, Mars, Unilever, Genentech, Staples, and Starbucks, generate upwards of $100 million in annual revenues or have more than $5 billion in assets under management.

Of course, it’s not just the companies on CERES’ list that take climate mitigation seriously. Hundreds of bigger companies, including ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, General Electric, General Motors, Apple, Google, and Facebook, have recently re-upped commitments made in 2015 to ramp up renewables in an effort to do the right thing while staying ahead of any climate mitigation regulations. 

According to the Sierra Club, whose Beyond Coal campaign helped secure the retirement of 248 coal-fired power plants nationwide since 2010, there just might be other ways to skin the climate cat than by relying on the Clean Power Plan. A new analysis by the group finds that “upwards of 60 percent of the reductions needed to meet the Paris commitment can be met through action by local residents, elected officials, and business leaders to replace aging coal-fired power plants with clean energy, secure large investments in energy efficiency, and stop the rush to natural gas.” The group maintains that if we latch on to new opportunities to cut emissions by further embracing renewables and energy efficiency, we could close the still large gap between what’s projected and what we need to meet our Paris commitments.

“This new Trumpian emissions future is not yet baked in,” reports Rhodium, adding that states, cities and companies will have to be the driving force of U.S. climate action in lieu of any help from a “head-in-the-sand” Trump administration. “Well-designed and well-coordinated action in states and cities could play a meaningful role in offsetting some federal policy-enabled emissions growth.”

Environmentalists continue to monitor and talk up what the Trump administration is doing/undoing regarding conservation and climate while imploring millions of sympathizers to show up at marches and rallies to support the cause. And while these tactics may help build strength and show solidarity, the White House and the Republican majority in Congress couldn’t care less what a million progressive marchers think anyway.

Maybe a better tack involves working with the momentum we already have and locking in commitments from states and the private sector to replace the emissions cuts promised under the Clean Power Plan (and then some)? What we need is a roadmap showing where else we can get the carbon cuts promised under the Clean Power Plan along with a strategy for how to incentive utilities, companies, states and municipalities to pledge commitments to get to these new Paris-friendly goals. With three-quarters of Americans (not to mention many of the richest philanthropists) still worried about climate change and its impacts, public support for creating and implementing such a plan shouldn’t be an issue. Coordinating where and how much to cut carbon emissions is sure to be a source of much debate, but the world came to the table to forge the Paris climate accord, so Americans should be able to agree on a path forward out of a climate catastrophe.

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is optimistic that we can do it, despite Trump. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, he argues that even without the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. is still in position to meet its 2025 Paris commitment.

“When we made the commitment in Paris, we were already about a third of the way there, thanks mostly to the closing of so many coal plants,” says Bloomberg, adding that future planned plant closings will get us to nearly two-thirds of our Paris goal.  “In combination with existing federal policies that can’t be undone, like vehicle fuel efficiency standards through model year 2021, the last third can be achieved by cities and businesses that are taking action to cut pollution and improve their energy efficiency.”

If we can rise to this new challenge despite our President, we can save face in the international community while simultaneously playing a major role in saving the planet from cataclysmic climate change. You’ve heard it before, but it’s really never been more up to “us” than right now…