President Obama published a formal Climate Action Plan last month, announcing the plan in a speech delivered at Georgetown University. The plan organizes the President’s executive actions under three pillars: (1) Cutting Carbon Pollution in America; (2) Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change; and, (3) Leading International Efforts to address Global Climate Change. The full text of the plan is available here.

There are two primary frames for assessing the plan’s content. First, in terms of legal and economic near-term effects, what does the plan require and who is most affected? Second, in terms of climate policy, does the plan adopt and promote measures that will meet the administration’s announced targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, global objectives for such reductions, and, finally the recommended emissions reductions of the world’s top climate scientists?

Legal and Economic Near-Term Effects

The plan embraces three basic policies. First, the Obama administration will continue its commitment to an “all of the above” energy strategy, with significant signals that natural gas will continue to win-out over coal as the fossil fuel of choice for electricity generation. Second, the administration will continue to support continued deployment of current generation renewables as a “win-win” for jobs, economic growth, and environmental protection. Third, this administration (and likely all future administrations) will ultimately have to rely on research, development, and deployment of new technologies to mitigate the worst effects of future climate change.

From a strictly legal perspective, the most significant announcement is that the EPA will promulgate new regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants. As the president stated in his speech, 40% of our carbon emissions are from power plants, which are currently allowed to “dump” unlimited amounts of emissions into the atmosphere for free. The president concluded that this was “not right, not safe, and needs to stop.” While the plan itself mentions clean coal and provides subsidies for the development and deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), new rules for existing power plants will likely result in fuel switching from coal to natural gas because of CCS’s expense, especially in the near and mid-term. Similarly, in both the plan and in President Obama’s speech, the administration strongly supports natural gas as both a source of jobs and as a comparatively clean transition fuel. However, once easier and cheaper methods of emissions reductions are made, CCS may become  important as a necessary tool to limit and stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially in countries that are heavily invested in coal for power generation such as China and India.

With respect to renewables and efficiency, the plan necessarily focuses on federal lands and projects. The Department of Interior will be directed to double renewables on public lands from 10 to 20 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2020, and the Department of Defense is committed to deploying 3 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2025. Federal agencies are also installing renewable capacity of 100 megawatts by 2020 across the federally subsidized housing stock.

Finally, President Obama mentioned the Keystone XL pipeline in his speech, declaring that, “The net effects of climate impact will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward, It is relevant.” Interestingly, the Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that it would not consider such impacts in its federal environmental review of the permits needed for coal export facilities in the Northwest. President Obama’s statement highlights ongoing uncertainties in the application of the Council on Environmental Quality’s draft standards for evaluating climate change impacts in federal projects. The full text of the draft standards is available here.

Climate Policy Implications

In terms of climate policy, the United States has already made major strides to meet the Obama administration’s commitment to a 17% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 as compared to 2005. The Climate Action Plan builds on previous administration policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as the new mileage standards for vehicles, and incorporates them into the plan. Full implementation of all existing and proposed initiatives in the plan, along with myriad existing and future state, local, and private efforts to reduce emissions, will almost certainly insure that this goal is met.

Importantly, however, the Obama administration’s current goal is insufficient to contribute meaningfully to the stated global objective, which is to limit global warming to no more than 2° Centigrade. Above this threshold, extremely dangerous climate change becomes likely. Moreover, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration that correlates with this threshold is 450 parts per million (ppm) and CO2 levels recently crossed 400 ppm for the first time in millions of years. The last time CO2 levels reached 400 ppm sea levels were some 80 to 120 feet higher than today, and CO2 levels are on track to reach 450 ppm in a few decades.

Thus, the United States’ current greenhouse gas reduction goals have been widely criticized as inadequate. Notably, the plan does not mention any temperature or greenhouse gas concentration objectives. It briefly summarizes the UN process for international climate negotiations, which are intended to lead to a new international agreement by 2015 to take effect in 2020. However, the most prominent point is that all countries, including developing countries such as Brazil, China, and India, which were not bound by the Kyoto Protocol, will be bound by the new agreement. As further context for international negotiations, many nations at most immediate risk from climate change, especially from sea level rise, are calling for a 1.5° C limit as climate scientists identify greater risks from lower temperature increases.

Under the circumstances, the plan’s objective of reasserting United States leadership in international efforts to combat climate change may be its most far-reaching. For example, current European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (UK) targets of 20% reductions on 1990 emissions levels are not considered ambitious enough and there is a push to adopt targets of 40 to 50% reductions on 1990 levels by 2030 in the context of a new global agreement.

In summary, the plan reflects what is politically possible, not what is necessary. The plan’s acknowledgement of adverse climate impacts and the need for adaptation and building resilience into local communities acknowledges the reality: adverse effects of climate change are here now and will get worse in the future. We need both strong mitigation and adaptation to avoid worst-case outcomes for our children and for all future generations. To this end, President Obama’s speech included interesting calls for action, from divestment to local organizing and political participation. This indicates that President Obama would like to do more and to do it more quickly, but he needs additional political support for this to happen.