From Paris to clean power: Energy in the Trump era

The Kleinman Center director discusses the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Agreement, and environmental policy.

Mark Alan Hughes
Photo by PennDesign

On Tuesday, Oct. 3, the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy will award its annual Carnot Prize to Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Barack Obama. One of McCarthy’s biggest legacies is the Clean Power Plan, resulting from a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court finding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases “endangered” Americans’ health.

For power plants already in existence, the Clean Power Plan regulates these pollutants at the state level. It also accounts for about one-third of emissions the U.S. pledged to cut as a participant in the Paris Agreement.

The Penn Current Express spoke with Mark Alan Hughes, faculty director of the Kleinman Center and a professor of practice at PennDesign, about the Clean Power Plan, the likelihood of America leaving the Paris Agreement, and his optimism for the future despite a less environmentally friendly political world.

Q:

You’ve said that there is a pervasive misunderstanding that the goal of the Clean Power Plan is to reduce emissions by 32 percent by 2035. What is the goal of the Plan? 

A:

The Clean Power Plan was intended to enforce the Clean Air Act, in this case by protecting Americans from carbon dioxide emissions without burdening the economy. [Following the Supreme Court decision], the EPA was required to impose regulations that use the best available technologies and that do not unduly burden polluters. If everybody does that, then the result would generate that 32 percent reduction in CO2 by 2035.

Q:

Where does the Plan currently stand?

A:

About half the states embraced the Clean Power Plan. Every state has its own requirements tailored to how electricity is generated, but famously, a number are actually suing, saying that the regulation went beyond its mandate. In fact, the new head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, was one of the state attorneys general who sued. Now the EPA is going to rewrite the plan, and a new version is expected to come out this fall.

Q:

What about a carbon tax?

A:

If we put a price on carbon and set that price at the right level, everybody would have incentives to reduce emissions. It would be more efficient than the Clean Power Plan, so some Republicans are saying they would support the idea of a carbon tax in exchange for getting rid of similar heavy-handed regulatory approaches. The irony is that the Clean Power Plan may become an important bargaining chip that allows us to finally get a carbon tax with bipartisan support.

Q:

How likely is a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord?

A:

The withdrawal process is cumbersome—few people in the White House seem to understand what it would entail—and if we withdrew, as nations began to impose carbon taxes, it’s possible we could start to see surcharges at the border for products being imported from the United States that are too carbon-intensive. So I don’t think it’s going to happen. Inertia now favors the kinds of changes the Paris Agreement represents.

Q:

The EPA under President Trump has taken a different tack than the agency had under Obama. What does that mean for our environment?

A:

In the face of a national government that pretty clearly doesn’t want to do all that it can on this topic, there’s room to work at a local, and regional, and state level. Eventually we need a national government that can partner with other national governments to achieve the necessary changes in energy and the economy, the kinds of changes we’ve only ever before seen when we’re fighting a world war. New York City was a place where a lot of war-winning activities happened in the 1940s, but New York City didn’t win WWII. The United States of America won WWII. The importance of a national government focused and active on all that can be done, which still is unlikely to be enough, that’s the prize.

Q:

Despite these less environmentally friendly times, you still sound optimistic. Are you?

A:

Questions about climate change are like a litmus test. People who approach the world in an optimistic way are optimistic about it, and people who don’t, aren’t. Rationally speaking, it’s grim. The challenges are huge. Time is running out. We no longer have a choice between trying to mitigate climate change and trying to adapt. We will be doing lots of adaptation, and the changes are already starting.

But there is much that can be done to make the consequences as small as possible, and to make the adaptation as doable as possible. And doing it really matters. That’s the place to put optimism. You can’t be optimistic when there’s nothing to be done, and here, that’s not the case.

Originally published on .