Legal & Regulatory

Europeans Praise the Clean Power Plan While Yawning in Reaction

By now, power industry watchers are familiar with how U.S. interests are reacting to the Environmental Protection Agency’s final release on August 3 of the Clean Power Plan. But what about the rest of the world—especially Europe, which has long been seen as taking a stronger stand on greenhouse gas emissions?

Some key European officials praised President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), calling it bold and a great step forward, particularly in light of the upcoming climate conferences to take place in Paris later this year (COP21). But not a few commentators were more critical, calling it both weak and fragile, and unable to really combat climate change itself.

Keen European critics seemed to understand the domestic political landscape better than many U.S. writers as well. Indeed, Obama’s plan marks the first time power plants in the U.S. have been targeted by mandatory regulations on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as all previous regulations address other pollutants. The CPP would force individual states to come up with plans to reduce CO2 emissions by 32% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. However, the European Union (EU) member nations, which constitute the world’s third-largest carbon emitter, have already agreed to cut emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by the year 2030.

First, within much of Europe, especially in France, they see the CPP through a Paris frame. Most articles and commentary have drawn links to the upcoming Paris climate conference in December, describing the CPP as “an important signal for the climate change conference in Paris” (Bild, Germany). French President Francois Hollande, quoted in Le Monde, said the plan would be a “major contribution to the success” of the Paris conference. Almost immediately upon release of the final CPP, Miguel Arias Canete, the EU’s commissioner for climate action and energy, took to Twitter to praise the plan as a “positive step forward” to cut emissions by the world’s second-largest carbon polluter. The plan “shows US commitment to underpin its international climate pledge with domestic action,” Canete said.

Prelude to Paris

In a piece in Le Monde, entitled “Climate Change, Barack Obama’s Great Challenge,” the authors quoted French president François Hollande, who said this first plan to limit U.S. power plant emissions would be a “major contribution to the success” of the 30 November – 11 December UN conference his country will host to ink a new global climate deal.

Hollande also hailed Obama’s “courage” in the face of Republican recriminations and the threat of legal action by the lobbying group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. In an editorial in Le Monde, critics went even further, stating that Obama was setting an example for the world: “François Hollande dreams about it, Barack Obama proves it: a second and final term in office allows you to take initiatives formerly deemed too risky. After restoring relations with Cuba and negotiating the agreement with Iran, the American President has just introduced an ambitious plan to reduce polluting sources of energy and to tackle global warming.” Because of the shale gas revolution in the U.S., the landscape has changed and there has been a “revolution shaking the reign of coal. . . . This new equation allows for a transition that avoids a brutal questioning of the energy-bulimic American way of life.”

But columnist Michael Knigge, writing in Germany’s Duetsche Weld hit the nail on the head, stating that the CPP alone “would only make a small dent in the overall US carbon emission trajectory” while recognizing that the plan is just one part of a larger strategy that will force utilities and regulators to “rethink their strategy and energy generation.” But, most importantly, “it puts the issue of climate change squarely back on the political agenda in the upcoming presidential election season and forces all candidates, especially the Republican hopefuls, to take a stance on the issue whether they want to or not.”

And, considering that the final version of the plan will not come into force for another two election cycles, the long lead time ensures that the CPP will be a political football for years. However, at least Obama and America, by default, have, Knigge wrote, “upped the ante on other countries to follow suit ahead of the Paris climate summit. China, India and the EU should take note.” Again, prelude to Paris.

Courageous but Insufficient

The AFP news agency also called Obama’s plan “a courageous step towards a lower-carbon future, but not yet enough to brake dangerous global warming.”

European experts agreed. “This is definitely a change . . . from what has been happening so far in the power sector in the US,” climate policy analyst Niklas Höhne of the New Climate Institute, a research body, told AFP. “On the negative side, while it is an important step towards meeting the US’s international pledge, on its own, it is not enough.” There was a “gap” of about 1.5 gigatonnes (Gt) between the emissions-curbing target in the U.S. and the actions the country was taking, said Höhne. The new plan has reduced the shortfall, on paper at least, by about a third— some 0.5 Gt.

A measure dubbed the Climate Action Tracker, to which Höhne contributes, says the U.S. target  has “medium” ambition, as do those of the other top three emitters: the EU and China. “If all countries would do what the US does, we are more on a pathway towards 3-4C,” said Höhne.

Pierre Radanne, a French energy expert, said the U.S. goals are weak compared to the EU’s aim to cut emissions by 40% by 2030 over 1990 levels. “The US cannot stay at this level. This is not leadership,” said Radanne, noting that the U.S. target would represent a mere 13% reduction if measured from 1990 to 2030.

The Political Angle

Europeans are also acutely aware of U.S. political controversy related to climate change. Nearly every article noted the strong opposition to the CPP from Republican lawmakers and the coal industry. British newspapers noted that “there will be legal and administrative challenges, from at least a dozen states, maybe two dozen” (The Guardian) and that the CPP’s emissions targets are “likely to become a political football in the next general election campaign” (Daily Telegraph). In Le Figaro, too, they reminded readers that Obama may be emboldened by the fact that he’s “not having to campaign for a new term” as he introduces new regulations that he knows won’t be enacted until well after he’s left office.

“President Obama’s opponents are absolutely right to call it a ‘war on coal’,” added Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a think tank. “That’s exactly what it has to be, given the science indicating that about 80% of known coal reserves have to be left in the ground if climate change is to be kept within manageable bounds.”

In Germany’s Der Spiegel, a commentary by Alexander Demling entitled “Climate Plan of the US Government: Obama’s fight against tons of coal,” the author noted that, “In order for the plan not to fail in the Republican-dominated Congress, it shall not be enforced as a law but a regulation. . . . And just as Obama may introduce the new climate rules without the consent of the Congress, a new President could abolish it relatively easy again.”

While the rhetoric in the U.S. rarely mentions this, the political reality of course is that, depending on which candidate gets elected next year, he or she will be the one to actually put this rule into effect. Or not. Given the power of “the influential Koch brothers” and “Their widespread industrial conglomerate Koch Industries,” the opposition “is unlikely to be happy with the US decision to take CO2 emission seriously,” Demling wrote. At the end of the day, however, “Whether Obama is perceived by history as a pioneer of climate protection or as a failed environmental politician, depend less on him than on his successor,” concluded the German commentary.

Christoph Seidler, in his piece, “Obamas Klimaplan: Ein bisschen Klimarettung” (“Obama’s Climate Plan, A Little Air Rescue”), also published in Der Spiegel, went even further: “Too little, too late. . . . The master stroke for which the US President would like to be celebrated, the new rules for coal-fired plants are not certain.” This is especially true since “States do not have to reduce [CO2] at all before 2022—long after the end of Obama’s term.”

But Seidler then makes a very salient point about the choice of 2005 as a reduction benchmark: “In the US, 2005 was a boom year for CO2, and since then the output has in any case already fallen by more than 15 percent. [This is in part due to] the financial crisis and the recession, and especially to the controversial fracking boom.” So even though the numbers and the stance seem quite bold, they are based on an anomaly. Moreover, since the plan really only applies to coal-fired power plants, “Obama’s Climate Plan would only result in a drop of six percent compared to the current CO2 emissions of the country.”

Seidler does praise Obama for taking on the coal industry, an act the “German government, for comparison, shelved pretty quickly. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) and CSU chief Horst Seehofer buried in July plans for a punitive levy on old coal-fired plants.”

Insufficient, Yet Important

Reactions also suggest that impatience with the U.S.’s foot-dragging on climate change runs deep. Obama was rather attacked from the British leftwing paper The Guardian, in its editorial on August 4. Calling his proposals “neither new nor radical,” the paper allowed they “deserve to be strongly supported, both in America and across the globe.”

The authors here realized that the CPP is really “a challenge to state governors, to Republican senators and congressmen, to fossil-fuel barons, to entrepreneurs who want to invest in renewable sources of energy, and to citizens who want to hang on to their homes and their jobs” that change must occur. But to the rest of the world, the CPP is something of an assurance that the UN climate conference in Paris might actually be a meaningful congress—quite unlike Copenhagen.

Of course, though so many right-wing Americans will challenge the rationale behind the CPP, or even the issues of climate change in general, the debate is mostly closed in the UK. “President Obama’s initiative may seem extreme to some Americans, but not to the Royal Meteorological Society, nor the Geological Society of London, nor the Royal Society of Chemistry. These all want to see an end to all emissions by 2050, a world in which carbon dioxide levels stabilise, and perhaps begin to fall. President Obama’s step is therefore very welcome. But it is just a step. There is still a long way to go, and not much time left.”

Of course, the current government in the UK is also challenging certain assumptions on climate change and has taken some rather conservative actions of its own.

Obama Following the Lead of Pope Francis?

Not so surprisingly, the Spanish press—at least authors writing in El Pais—suggested that though Obama’s actions are indeed bold, they are following the example of another very strong leader: “Suddenly, the road to an agreement on emissions reduction in Paris next December has started to clear up. First, it was Pope Francis and his ecological encyclical; now it is Obama and his plan. It is worth noting that they both entail clear support of alternative sources of energy. . . . If in the case of Pope Francis it is his moral and spiritual authority that is brought to bear in the extraordinary repercussion of his green encyclical, in the case of US president its is his political authority in two directions: face to the international scene, it complements the bilateral agreement with China, guarantees multilateral success in Paris, and encourages new big polluters (i.e. emerging economies); in terms of domestic politics, it challenges denial and reactionary position of the Republican candidates, which will impact the primaries and have an even stronger effect in the presidential campaign in 2016.”

Friends in High Places

Writing in The Independent, Jeremy Leggett, founder of Solarcentury, penned that Obama has two very big allies in both Beijing and Rome: “The Chinese government fears climate change enough to co-operate bilaterally on multiple fronts with the US. Pope Francis in his recent encyclical has as good as told Catholics to worry about their souls if they maintain course with carbon profligacy. It will be interesting to see how the US religious right deals with that, especially with an [American] election in the offing. One in four Americans is Catholic.”

(For even more international commentary on the CPP, see Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.)

Lee Buchsbaum (, a former editor and contributor to Coal Age, Mining, and EnergyBiz, has covered coal and other industrial subjects for nearly 20 years and is a seasoned industrial photographer.

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