On 28 March, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order which challenges America's current position on climate change.
The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan (CPP) set limits on the amount of CO2 that coal-powered power plants could emit. Under President Trump's new executive order, the CPP will be reviewed and revised to remove barriers to American energy independence. A moratorium on the granting of new leases for coal extraction on public land would also be ended.
Some environmentalists are concerned that the new executive order is a move to boost the use of coal in electricity generation. Coal produces roughly double the amount of carbon dioxide when compared with natural gas to produce the same amount of electricity . However, many commentators believe that the changes proposed in the executive order would be unlikely to lead to a rush for coal. The price of natural gas is low in the US, meaning that it may not make economic sense to reopen coal plants. But it is also possible that it could have the effect of slowing investment in renewable energy.
Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is increasing and is known to be one of the 'greenhouse gases' contributing to accelerated climate change. In 2009 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that CO2, together with other gases were responsible for contributing to climate change in a way that threatened the public health and welfare of current and future generations of Americans. This has the effect of forcing the federal government to regulate CO2 emissions. So in order for the new executive order to take effect, the EPA's "endangerment finding" on CO2 would have to be modified or even reversed to allow restrictions on CO2 production to be removed.
The policies proposed by the executive order seem to go against the opinion of the US public too, as a Gallup poll from March 2016 found that 64% of Americans worried either a great deal or a fair amount about global warming, while 65% thought that human activities were primarily responsible for increases in the Earth's temperatures over the last 100 years.
The executive order will almost certainly be challenged in the courts, so its proposals cannot take effect until the legal process has been gone through. This is likely to take years.
The first two months of 2017 have been the second hottest globally on record, only just behind the record breakers of 2016. The World Meteorological Organisation has said the world is now in 'truly uncharted territory', while ice levels in the Arctic and Antarctic are at record-breaking lows. In 2016, our atmosphere was consistently made up of more than 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 for the first time in at least 3 million years. That's a time before the homo habilis, the very first proto-human ever walked the Earth.
In December 2015, the leaders of 195 countries met in Paris and jointly committed their nations to reducing CO2 emissions as a means of combatting climate change, which affects everyone on the planet, no matter where they live. The legally-binding agreement they signed aimed to limit global average temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade (1.5C) above pre-industrial levels and to ensure that global average temperatures were kept 'well below' 2C above pre-industrial levels. During the pre-industrial period, global CO2 levels were around 280 ppm.
The USA is currently the world's second biggest emitter of CO2 after China. All 28 countries making up the European Union jointly make up the third biggest emitter.
Photo by Michael Vadon.