On Earth Day, Nations To Sign Off On Historic Climate Pact
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In New York today, well over 100 nations are set to sign the most sweeping climate change agreement ever. The deal will eventually commit almost all the world's governments to cut back on the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. With us is NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Hi, Lourdes
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you were in Paris when this agreement was drafted. How big a deal, really, is this?
JOYCE: The biggest ever. It's much, much bigger than the previous agreement in Kyoto, especially because the U.S. and China are now part of this deal. They're the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Without them, it never would have happened.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what has the United States in particular, though, promised with this deal?
JOYCE: Well, the U.S. has promised to reduce its emissions over the next 10 years to a point 26 to 28 percent below what they were in 2005. You know, the way they're going to do that is this thing called the Clean Power Plan, which was introduced in 2015 by the Environmental Protection Agency. And that basically is aimed at lowering the emissions from - of all the power plants in the United States.
There's a problem, though - and this is a real problem for the United States - is that over 20 states sued. They said this is illegal. The industry sued, and the Supreme Court said yeah, we're going to hold on. We're going to stop this plan until it works its way through the courts.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you know, confusion among states and clearly - just obviously people in certain communities aren't happy.
JOYCE: Really. When states had already started working on complying with this plan, now who knows what's going to happen. We ask member stations to tell us. So we've got three reporters from NPR member stations who have gone out to find out what states are doing. We start with Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio.
GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: In a purple state like Colorado, Republican and Democrats spar constantly over the Clean Power Plan. Last year, Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman joined about two dozen other states and legally challenged the rule. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper vowed to move forward, even after the Supreme Court but the rule on hold. But state Republicans struck back, first with an effort to completely defund the 95-person agency tasked with implementing the plan and then with a compromise that stripped over $100,000 for planning for next year.
BOB RANKIN: For me, this is just a small step. It's a small victory
HOOD: That's state Republican representative and budget writer Bob Rankin. He has three coal mines in his district. The industry stands to lose a lot if the rule is put in place. It's been hit hard recently by layoffs and bankruptcies.
RANKIN: My folks are scared to death of the impact of this if we implement it in Colorado.
HOOD: Democrats had a different take on the political maneuvers this session.
PAT STEADMAN: It's always felt a little petty and vindictive.
HOOD: The Democratic state Senator Pat Steadman. With or without the funding, Steadman and others in the party say they'll continue to work toward cleaner air.
STEADMAN: Every once in a while, you hit a bump in the road, but we didn't get a flat tire. And we're still moving forward.
HOOD: The National Conference of State Legislatures which tracks legislation across the U.S finds that states have considered more than 50 bills this session to enhance, further define or limit work on the Clean Power Plan.
MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: In Georgia, there hasn't been any back-and-forth like that. I'm Molly Samuel from WABE in Atlanta. Here, we have a Republican governor, a Republican attorney general and majority Republican legislature. The day the Supreme Court stay was issued, Georgia just stopped working on the Clean Power Plan. There was no public debate between state officials about that.
But that doesn't mean state Air Protection Branch chief Karen Hays isn't thinking about it. She has a whiteboard in her office, a classroom-sized one, that's covered in notes and dates and deadlines. And the Clean Power Plan is up there.
KAREN HAYS: Yeah, up in the little far corner.
SAMUEL: Georgia had been taking a sort of two-pronged approach since the EPA released the plan. The attorney general was suing to stop it. At the same time, the state Environmental Protection Division where Hays works was preparing to implement it - until the stay.
HAYS: Some people would probably wish that we would continue to work on the state plan.
SAMUEL: She says all the work they've done won't be lost if it turns out the Clean Power Plan is legal and the state does have to comply.
HAYS: I think we'll be able to pick up and go if need be.
SAMUEL: But the decision not to work on implementation in Georgia is already having effects. The biggest utility here, Georgia Power, is putting together its plan for how it will generate electricity in the future. It's a months-long process. And at this point, Georgia Power is still banking on coal, as if there is no Clean Power Plan. If the EPA rule ends up going forward, the utility will have to revisit that. Meanwhile, some states are charging ahead with the Clean Power Plan.
MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: That's what Pennsylvania is doing. I'm Marie Cusick of StateImpact Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. There are five people at the state Department of Environment Protection spending part of their time on the plan. John Quigley heads the agency and says whether or not the Clean Power Plan survives the legal challenge, the grid is already changing.
JOHN QUIGLEY: What is absolutely inevitable is that we need to have lower carbon energy generation. We're facing a future of cheap, shale gas and continually declining costs of renewable energy.
CUSICK: Pennsylvania's fracking boom has made it one of the biggest producers of natural gas in the nation. So the plan could be good news for the gas industry. But the state is still a major player in the coal industry. And like Colorado, Pennsylvania is a purple state with a Democratic governor and Republican legislature. GOP lawmakers have pushed unsuccessfully for legislation to try to give themselves more time to review the plan. But any delay could leave the state with fewer options.
ROB ALTENBURG: If a state chooses not to or is unable to submit a timely plan, then a federal plan will apply.
CUSICK: Rob Altenburg is with the environmental advocacy group PennFuture.
ALTENBURG: And I know of no state that really would prefer a federal plan over a state-specific plan.
CUSICK: For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Chris, not a lot of uniformity here. And I think it shows a lot of the problems implementing an ambitious plan like Paris.
JOYCE: It is going to be difficult, but not impossible. There's already a lot that's underway. Natural gas is replacing coal already in the United States in many power plants. Efficiency improvements have been made with cars. And so the U.S. can get pretty far without the Clean Power Plan.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, what about renewables like solar and wind? Do they plan to this at all?
JOYCE: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. That's the fastest-growing sector of the electricity industry is wind and solar. There've been some tax breaks renewed recently for wind and solar. So they're going gangbusters, but it's going to be tough without the Clean Power Plan. I mean, that's what all the analysts say.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. What happens next when it comes to the agreement self?
JOYCE: The Paris? Well, a lot of paperwork, of course...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah (laughter).
JOYCE: ...These are governments we're talking about.
Eventually when 55 countries that represent 55 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted on the planet - when they all sign it and agree and get their paperwork done and agree how to monitor each other to make sure that nobody's cheating, then it will be official.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. NPR's Chris Joyce, thank you so much.
JOYCE: A pleasure to be here.
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