The decision by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) February 9 to stop implementation and enforcement of the Obama administration’s premier global climate regulation pending litigation has enormous implications, particularly for India.
The Clean Power Plan (CPP), promulgated last year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), aimed to achieve a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from American power plants by 2030. That goes beyond the 25 to 28 percent reduction by 2025 the Obama administration promised under the agreement reached in Paris in December. Implementation would require shutting down the country’s coal-based power plants and replacing much of their output with wind and solar, resulting in steep increases in the cost of electricity.
SCOTUS ordered a stay until legal challenges by 27 states and various industries are heard, starting in the lower courts but almost certainly reaching the high court around mid-2017.
EPA and the Obama administration are confident the CPP will survive, leaving enough time to fulfill the Paris agreement. But many legal experts predict SCOTUS will strike it down. If it does, the next president’s administration must, if it is to abide by the Paris agreement, draft a new plan. While both Democratic presidential candidates support the CPP and the Paris agreement, the leading Republican candidates oppose both. No one can predict who will win or to what extent the winner will keep his promises. That means great uncertainty regarding the United States’ commitment to reduce emissions.
What does this mean for a developing country like India?
In Paris, India and other developing countries agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, but only because developed nations did likewise. Developed nations also committed to provide finance and technology to developing countries to shift from conventional energy to wind and solar. Moreover, the Obama administration had pledged to reduce fossil fuel-based energy production while increasing use of renewable sources such as wind and solar.
How will India respond to SCOTUS’s ruling? It is unclear, complicated by India’s own unrealistic emission commitments, which don’t match the demand for energy in India or the hurdles to obtaining financial assistance from the United States, whose own energy future remains unknown.
Like the CPP, the Paris agreement largely fails to count the cost of the proposed transition to renewable energy. If such a failure can doom a policy in a wealthy nation like America, why should such regulations be prescribed for a developing nation like India? Also, the Paris agreement is based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s computer climate models, which, for whatever reasons, exaggerate greenhouse warming by two to three times — implying that both its harmful impacts and the benefits of preventing them are equally exaggerated.
India’s public sector investment speaks volumes about its economic, and moral, priorities. In the past decade, agriculture received US$36 billion, while the industrial sector received US$61 billion. Replacing coal with wind and solar would require shifting more finance from agriculture to industry.
Yet recently, a first-of-its-kind socio-economic survey revealed that 70 percent of the country’s 1.25 billion people live in rural areas in poverty, despite billions of dollars spent to eradicate poverty across six decades. They lack continuous access to basic amenities like electricity, drinking water, quality education, and healthcare. A plateau in development spending, let alone a reduction, will prolong their poverty significantly. That is inevitable if the country is forced to switch from fossil fuel to wind and solar.
According to India’s energy minister, the country’s energy production must quadruple to meet the demand of 600 million new customers in 25 years. Even by increasing coal-based power production, it will take a couple of decades for the country to meet its growing energy demands. India plans to produce a combined 595 terawatt hours from solar and wind by 2040, but the high cost would slow development.
India should avoid the pitfalls the U.S. has experienced in energy and climate policy. In 2011, EPA imposed a rule to reduce mercury emissions from power plants. Four years later SCOTUS struck it down because EPA failed to consider compliance costs, but the damage had already been done — power companies had already needlessly spent billions complying. It’s quite possible that the CPP will face the same fate — but this time SCOTUS, by halting implementation during litigation, may prevent similar waste.
The Paris agreement may face a similar fate, being abandoned as more and more countries recognize that it’s based on faulty science and has costs that far exceed benefits, or if developing countries, seeing the United States (and possibly other wealthy nations) backing away from their commitments, decide to abandon theirs as well. After all, unlike the Obama administration, India and China, along with other developing countries, don’t necessarily favor the unrealistic emission targets set in Paris.
When a wealthy nation like the U.S. wants to protect its citizens by not committing to carbon dioxide emission reductions, on what ethical basis are poor countries expected to do the opposite?
In light of the stay on the CPP, India and other developing countries must conduct a critical postmortem of the Paris agreement. This requires a systematic and comprehensive effort to re-assess transitional energy goals to prevent further harm to the poor.