The Supreme Court Stay of the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Pledges

Posted on February 10th, 2016 by Justin Gundlach

Michael B. Gerrard
Faculty Director

The Supreme Court’s unprecedented, unexpected and unexplained action yesterday staying implementation of the Clean Power Plan is one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time. However, the damage it does to the United States’ ability to meet its Paris pledge is less than it might seem. But that is not because the Clean Power Plan wasn’t important; it is because the Plan didn’t do nearly enough.

The Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) that the U.S. submitted in advance of COP21 reiterated the prior goal of achieving a 17% reduction below 2005 levels in 2020, and conveyed a new pledge of a 26% to 28% reduction by 2025. The INDC cited the Clean Power Plan as one of the actions being taken to meet those pledges, but did not present any numbers on what actions would lead to what reductions.

More detail was presented in the Second Biennial Report of the United States under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, submitted by the Department of State in January 2016. As the report makes clear, the Clean Power Plan’s actual emissions reductions do not begin until 2022, and thus have no bearing on achievement of the 2020 goal. From 2020 to 2025, the Report expects carbon dioxide emissions to fall from 5,409 to 5,305 MtCO2e (Table 4) with implementation of the Clean Power Plan, energy efficiency standards, fuel economy standards, and numerous other measures that are already on the books, and down to 5,094 in 2030. (The report does not separately specify how much of this is due to the Clean Power Plan alone; the numbers result from a complex modeling exercise that included numerous interrelated actions.)

That is not nearly enough of a reduction to meet the 26% target (much less the 28% aspiration) for 2025. Instead, a host of additional measures are also needed. The Biennial Report lists these as possibilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions:

  • Full implementation of Phase II heavy-duty vehicle fuel economy standards.
  • Finalization of proposed, new, or updated appliance and equipment efficiency standards.
  • Increased efficiency of new and existing residential and commercial buildings.
  • Reduction in industrial energy demand in several subsectors.
  • Additional state actions in the electricity sector.
  • Enhanced federal programs that lead to greater efficiencies in industry and transportation, including greater biofuel deployment and commercial aviation efficiency.


To address other greenhouse gases, the Biennial Report lists these possible added measures:

  • An amendment (already in the works) to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to phase down production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons.
  • Measures to reduce methane emissions from landfills, coalmining, agriculture, and oil and gas systems.
  • More efficient nutrient application techniques that reduce nitrous oxide emissions.


Even all of the above is not enough to meet the 2025 goals. The Biennial Report puts heavy reliance on the land-use sink – on the ability of forests and other vegetated areas to absorb a considerable amount of the greenhouse gases that are emitted. And even with an “optimistic sink” scenario and a number of other favorable assumptions, the key summary graph in the Biennial Report (Figure 6) shows a reduction of about 27% in 2025.

In sum, while the Clean Power Plan is the biggest game in town in terms of achieving the Paris goals, it is by no means the only game in town. While we express our justifiable fury over the Supreme Court’s action, we need to bear in mind that there are many other things that the U.S. must do in the next several years to control greenhouse gas emissions.


  1. The Clean Power Plan is doing it wrong. Only nuclear will work. Obviously, third and fourth generation nuclear would be the cheapest and safest source of electricity, and produce the least CO2 as well. Wind turbines require concrete foundations, which cause wind energy to make more CO2 than nuclear. Wind turbines have killed ~110 people already. Nuclear has killed nobody. Renewables are too intermittent to provide continuous energy with the technology we have now. The battery for the US would cost about one QUADRILLION dollars, meaning we just can’t make one.

    Coal is the energy we must eliminate in order to reduce our CO2 output. Fortunately, nuclear is a perfect match for replacing coal while lowering overall cost and eliminating pollution. Nuclear can be installed and on line in 3 years or less now that we have pre-certified factory built modular nuclear reactors. The price is also reduced by 1/3.

    The important thing for citizens to know is that natural background radiation is about 1000 times as large as nuclear power plant radiation and coal fired power plant radiation is 100 to 400 times as much as nuclear power plant radiation.

    Chernobyl was an ancient Generation one plant without a containment building. Such a reactor would never have been licensable in the US.

    The radiation you measure today if you have a geiger counter is 99.9% natural background. The natural background was here thousands of years ago and millions of years ago. Billions of years ago, the natural background was stronger.

    There are the following right ways to write the law:
    1. Require an electric company to make no more than 30 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour or
    2. Collect a fee of $10 per ton of CO2 at the fuel source and give 100% of the money collected to the citizens of the country as a monthly dividend, divided equally among the citizens. Double the fee per ton of CO2 annually.

  2. Edward Greisch probably has few knowledge about the nuclear plant industry’s background.

    Before amplifying the use of nuclear energy for electricity production, one first should build coherent balance sheets in the financial, energetic and emission contexts for the process as a whole.

    That means to calculate the cumulated costs, energy needs and CO2 emissions produced by
    – extracting, refining, enriching, reprocessing, waste disposal and definite storage of all nuclear fuel components
    – construction, maintenance, dismantling, waste disposal and definite storage of all sites involved in all phases of the nuclear chain.

    Having done that job you see
    – how expensive the chain really is,
    – that it consumes over the long term nearly as much energy as it produces
    – that it emits much less CO2 than coal or gas, but far more than renewables!

    Moreover, the waste circuit of that chain is barely incredible.

    A nuclear plant with a gigawatt of installed power needs about 30 tons of enriched unranium every year. Together with special steal and zirconium: about 120 tons a year, most of it radioactive enough to impose a long time storage far away from civilization.

    One ton of enriched fuel needs 6.5 tons of uranium oxyde; one ton of uranium oxyde requests at mining site not less than 2,000 tons of extracted material.

    The remaining 1,999 tons plus lots of hard chemicals plus lots and lots of water? That all lies on the ground in never processed, so called tailings in Africa, Australia, Kazakhstan etc etc.

    Is that our future?

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