WASHINGTON - The United States on Monday proposed ordering cuts of up to 30% in carbon emissions from power plants in President Barack Obama's most ambitious action yet on climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency gave states the leeway to choose their own plans but said that they must include enforceable restrictions to curb emissions by a national average of 30% by 2030 from 2005 levels.
Power plants account for some 40% of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Cuts are politically sensitive as coal, among the dirtiest energy sources, remains a major U.S. industry.
The move comes amid mounting signs of climate change. A UN panel of scientists warned in April that polluters needed to act urgently to avoid worst-case scenarios, which could include increased droughts, storms and coastline destruction.
"For the sake of our families' health and our kids' future, we have a moral obligation to act on climate," said Gina McCarthy, the agency's administrator.
The environmental regulator said that the cuts would prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children.
A win for public health: The first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants. pic.twitter.com/oHUP8QwII9— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) May 31, 2014
Boosting the message that the plan is good for public health, Obama is scheduled to speak later Monday on a conference call of the American Lung Association.
"This is not just about disappearing polar bears or melting ice caps. This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs," McCarthy said.
Obama has turned to executive action on climate change as he sees little prospect of action in Congress. A proposal to mandate greenhouse gas cuts died in the Senate in 2010.
Obama's plan was swiftly denounced by lawmakers of the rival Republican Party, which is friendly with the energy industry. Republicans accused Obama of raising energy bills for low-income families, although the administration predicts that the proposal would reduce costs by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who represents the coal state of Kentucky, said that the plan amounted to a "unilateral dismantling of our own economic supremacy and the self-imposed destruction of one of our nation's main competitive advantages in the global economy."
"These new rules will cheer the far-left patrons of Washington liberals, but there is simply no question that our competitors around the world will eagerly replace whatever industry we lose as a result of these new rules," he said.
McConnell: EPA Overreach ‘a dagger in the heart of the American middle class’— Sen. McConnell Press (@McConnellPress) June 2, 2014
Representative Fred Upton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, noted that the U.S. economy shrank for the first time in three years in the third quarter.
"Why in the world is the president pushing regulations that will serve to increase utility rates for consumers, send manufacturing jobs overseas and hamstring our economic recovery?" Upton said.
With states required to submit plans during the 2016 election season, Republican governors may try to throw legal challenges to the plan, although the Supreme Court has held up the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate carbon dioxide.
The regulator's proposal would go into effect after a public review period. States would be required to submit a plan to Washington by the end of June 2016, although they would have more time if they work on programs with other states.
Boost for Global Efforts
Obama's push comes as the clock ticks on a UN-backed goal of reaching a new global treaty on climate change at talks in Paris in late 2015. Negotiators meet in Bonn, Germany, from Wednesday to prepare for the talks.
Connie Hedegaard, the European Union's climate action commissioner, said Obama's proposal was "the strongest action ever taken by the U.S. government to fight climate change, which is good news and also shows that the United States is taking climate change seriously."
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said she expected action by the United States -- the world's second largest emitter after China -- to "spur others in taking concrete action."
Obama's decision "will send a good signal to nations everywhere that one of the world's biggest emitters is taking the future of the planet and its people seriously," she said.
UN-backed conferences have set a goal of keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels -- a goal that scientists warn is increasingly elusive.
- Shaun Tandon, Jerome Cartillier, AFP
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2014