Road to Paris 2015: Sizing Up America’s Clean Power Plan

I am a climate change traveller–an explorer. Welcome to my excursion through the sometimes confusing terrain of climate change initiatives and  international negotiations–a landscape littered with acronyms, numbers, science, law, and politics–yet of utmost importance, affecting global welfare today and for generations to come.

Nobody cleared a path for themselves by giving up.

Palacia Bessette, Simply from Scratch, 2010; Courtesy of

Under the Clean Power Plan announced by the President of the United States almost two weeks ago,  power plant emissions will be reduced by 1/3 of 2005 levels by 2030.  Power plants are responsible for a major chunk of U.S. carbon emissions. The diagram below shows that electricity generates almost 40% of  U.S. carbon and that transportation is the runner up generating 34% :


Courtesy of U.S. Energy Information Administration published in How much U.S. electricity is generated by renewable energy?, June 12, 2015.

Some states have already started to promote clean energy and others will have catching up to do. The end result will be a change in the types of energy used to generate electricity. The image below shows the energy mix for power generation on a national level in 2014. Did you know that after hydro, wind is currently the leading source of renewable energy? Carbon emitting fossil fuels–coal and natural gas– make up almost 70% of the national mix.


Courtesy of U.S. Energy Information Administration, published in How much US electricity is generated by renewable energy?, June 12, 2015.

Few cases of eyestrain have been developed by looking on the bright side of things.

Author unknown. Courtesy of

Under the Clean Power Plan, less coal will be burned–to be replaced by natural gas and clean renewable energy sources (wind,sun, geothermal, biomass and hydro). Recognizing that energy mix profiles vary from state to state, power plan strategies will be designed by each state to address their unique situations.

The graphs below show how the national electricity energy mix will change under the Clean Power Plan.  The starting point is on the left, projections for a no Power Plan scenario in the middle, and expected changes with a Clean Power Plan on the right. The colours are intuitive, with green for renewable energy, blue for natural gas, black for coal, and red for nuclear. Notice how on the far right there is more green renewable energy and less black coal.  By 2040, fossil fuels–coal and natural gas–will drop from 70% of the national mix to 55%.  

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (May 27, 2015)

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration (May 27, 2015)

Looking at the Big Picture

A considerable amount of fossil fuels will continue to be part of the power mix.  The Clean Power Plan contributes only a fraction of  Total U.S. emission reductions planned for post-2020 under the United States INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution), submitted for the UN climate treaty negotiations in Paris later this year, which in its simplest form is:

26 to 28% reduction from total 2005 carbon emissions (not just from power plants) by 2025 and at least 80% reduction by 2050

Nevertheless, I choose to be optimistic.  If allowed to unfold, the Clean Power Plan will reinforce current momentum and inspire new initiatives, unleashing a snowball effect.

Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Colin Powell, U .S. General (1937-); Courtesy of

The Environmental Protection Agency’s plan, is in part a catch-up measure. As the President noted in his August 3 speech,  many power plants are already improving efficiency,  almost 50% of states have efficiency targets, more than 35 states have renewable energy targets, over 1000 city mayors have committed to reducing carbon pollution, and major corporations have set targets for reducing their emissions. The map below shows the number of states having targets for increasing renewable energy in power generation:


Courtesy of U.S. Energy Information Administration Institute How much U.S. electricity is generated by renewable energy?, June 12, 2015

Opposition to the Plan is a reality, especially from the coal industry and those states that rely on coal the most.  The top 10 coal-burning states rely on coal for 67 to 97 % of their energy mix.  Clearly these states will face the stiffest challenges in formulating and complying with Clean Power Plan targets.  Nevertheless, their citizens can look forward to significant improvements in air quality and health as they switch to other energy sources.

The Paris Summit in December will be a major turning point.

The Clean Power Plan will give the United States more credibility at the negotiating table.  If world leaders successfully forge a binding climate agreement, the Clean Power Plan will be  less vulnerable to neglect, postponement, or repeal.

Want to know more  about your nation’s commitments and emissions? Take a look at these resources:

Interactive map showing which countries have submitted their INDC (post-2020 climate action plan) in preparation for the Paris talks. Click a country or area of interest for a pop-up summary of the INDC. Source:  World Resources Institute Climate Data Explorer.

Interactive map showing total CO2 emissions for the period 1990-2012 expressed in million metric tons (Mtco2e). Click  countries of interest to discover total carbon output. Source: World Resources Institute  Historical Greenhouse Gas Emissions Map.


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