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Environment

Will the Supreme Court’s latest decision derail the Paris Climate Talks?

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The US Supreme Court recently enacted an unprecedented “stay,” or freeze, on the environmental protection agency’s Clean Power Plan, a plan that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.

The court has never issued a ruling of this kind before. Generally, they wait until they hear a case before they issue a ruling of any kind, so this sudden shift has led many to think that the judges intend to kill the act. This would deal a major blow to the nation’s ability to be environmentally sustainable.

It could also potentially derail the Paris Climate agreements from last December by delegitimizing arguably the most influential country involved.

Background

In August 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced the Clean Power Plan ruling.

It calls for greater efficiency and less pollution from fossil fuel powered electricity plants, which account for 32% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The plan would be gradually enforced, with states having until 2022 to meet the efficiency standards, but opponents in the energy industry still think the plan is too ambitious.

Under the plan, many of the country’s coal plants would be shuddered, simply because they pollute far too much.

In many of the states that brought the lawsuit against the EPA, the coal industry represents jobs and income.

But coal is on the decline regardless of the EPA’s actions and if you really want to analyze this, nothing threatens long-term economic viability quite like fossil fuels, especially coal. And because of that, coal is already on the decline.

Why coal is on the decline

It’s happening for a few reasons.

First, natural gas is a cheaper alternative and has been discovered in abundance in the past several years.

Next, renewable energy sources like solar and wind are becoming more viable.

Third, as infrastructure becomes more energy-efficient, less coal will have to be burned.

Finally, consumers are concerned about climate change and are demanding clean energy alternatives.

The Clean Power Plan will expedite the general decline of coal, and it may be a final nail in the coffin. So the jobs concern is simply one of how fast coal jobs disappear not if they will.

After all, the act is expected to cut billions of metric tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions, which would be an enormous drop.

And, maybe more importantly, the act shows other countries that the US government is serious about pulling its weight along with the rest of the world to curb climate change.

How this ruling affects the Paris Climate Talks

More broadly speaking, the Clean Power Plan is the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s push to join the global coalition to slow down climate change.

It became a central component of the Obama administration’s negotiating tactics in the Paris Climate Talks last December.

President Obama was able to point to the plan, along with his other environmental executive actions, as evidence that the US was finally ready to get tough on climate change.

In the past, the US was often the biggest obstacle to past efforts to unite the world against climate change.

This time, the US said, was different.

And it was different. It was the first time all countries agreed on ambitious targets for climate action.

But none of the measures agreed upon were legally binding, so members can technically shirk their responsibility without consequence.

The US, being the biggest per capita greenhouse gas emitter, was seen as the central pillar of this deal.

If the country’s leading judicial body suddenly strikes down a core part of the US’s part of the agreement, it could cause other countries to view the whole arrangement as futile.

This would be disastrous. The window to act on climate change is shrinking. All countries around the world not only have to uphold their parts of the global agreement, but also step up their commitments. If the US starts backtracking now, it could cause a regressive ripple effect.

Other countries have already begun escalating their commitments. Vietnam, for instance, recently abandoned all future coal plans. And countries across the world are rapidly approaching energy grids that are 100% renewable.

The Clean Power Plan is not invalidated yet. It could still survive the upcoming Supreme Court hearing.

It’s a stretch to say that the whole world is riding on this decision--but other countries will certainly be following developments of this case.

Ultimately, the outcome could foreshadow the difference between saving the climate or dangerously extending business as usual.