Vox: Obama just released his most ambitious climate policy yet — the Clean Power Plan

Vox, updated by on August 3, 2015, 3:28 p.m. ET

On Monday afternoon, President Obama released the final version of his most ambitious climate-change policy to date — an EPA program to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants. The final version of the Clean Power Plan turns out to be slightly stronger than the draft proposal released last summer.

So how big a deal is this rule? You can look at it in a few different ways. Optimistically, the program has the potential to transform the US electricity industry, pushing utilities in every state to take clean energy seriously. The administration is also hoping this new rule will give a much-needed jolt to global climate talks, spurring other countries to respond with further actions.

Or you could take the dour view: this is a jury-rigged, legally vulnerable plan that’s still only a small piece of what’s needed to slow the pace of global warming. (In the big picture, this rule amounts to a 6 percent cut in current US greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030 — it’s only one component of Obama’s broader climate plan.)

You can make a solid argument for both these positions. The truth is that may take years to see how it pans out. The success or failure of this plan will depend on how states react, whether courts uphold it, how future presidents implement it, how other countries respond. In the meantime, here are 14 broad points to keep in mind:

1) The basics of the Clean Power Plan are simple enough. The EPA will give each state an individual goal for reducing emissions from their electric power plants. States can then decide for themselves how to get there. They can switch from coal to natural gas, boost renewables, set up programs to boost energy efficiency in homes, enact cap-and-trade systems… it’s up to them. States will submit plans by 2018, start cutting by 2022 at the latest, and then keep cutting through 2030. If states refuse to submit a plan, the EPA will impose its own federal plan.

2) Some details have changed since EPA’s draft proposal last summer. For instance: the EPA is tweaking the formula it uses to set individual state goals. States will now have until 2022 rather than 2020 before they need to start cutting. States like South Carolina and Georgia will get more credit for nuclear power plants they’re currently building. These tweaks will get lots of media attention, and they’re of keen interest to policymakers and utilities. The EPA also hopes they’ll solidify the rule against legal challenges. But they don’t significantly alter the big picture.

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