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US Supreme Court restricts government's powers to regulate carbon emissions

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In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States has curbed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) ability to broadly regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has suffered a significant blow, as the country's highest court has ruled that the country's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not have the authority to limit emissions that contribute to climate change across whole states.

The court sided with 19 conservative states and fossil fuel companies in a case against the EPA brought by West Virginia. In its 6-3 ruling, the court said that only Congress, not the EPA, has the power to create a broad system of cap-and-trade regulations to limit emissions from existing power plants. 

Biden called the ruling a "devastating decision" but said that it will not undermine his administration's efforts to curb climate change and reach the goal to completely cut all carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 and reduce the country’s overall emissions by half by 2100.

The EPA called the Supreme Court's decision "disheartening", but said that it remains committed to protecting communities and reducing pollution.

The case stems from a disagreement about the Clean Air Act, a groundbreaking environmental law that lays out the EPA’s responsibility to protect the nation’s air quality by regulating pollution. In 2015, the Obama administration invoked this legislation to mandate a new set of regulations for power plants called the Clean Power Plan. 

Under the 2015 EPA directive, coal power plants were mandated to either reduce production or subsidise alternate forms of energy. However, the rule was never implemented because it was immediately challenged in court by states concerned that the move away from coal would come at a high economic cost and reduce the number of available jobs.

Eventually, the Trump administration replaced the Clean Power Plan with its own weaker greenhouse gas regulations called the Affordable Clean Energy rule.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt for Missouri - one of the 19 states that supported this case - called the ruling a "big victory... that pushes back on the Biden EPA's job-killing regulations".

Currently, fossil fuel-fired power plants are the second-largest source of pollution in the US, while the nation as a whole is the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world behind only China, according to the EPA.

The 19 states involved in the case alone made up 44 per cent of the US emissions in 2018 and since 2000 have only achieved an average 7 per cent reduction in their emissions.

The court's decision now forces Biden to rely on a change of policy from the states in question, or a change in the stance of Congress regarding these issues, for the country to reach its climate targets

“Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,’” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissenting opinion, joined by the court’s two other liberal judges. 

Although the ruling affects a law that never came into effect, it could also have sweeping consequences for the federal government’s ability to set standards and regulate in other areas, such as clean air and water, consumer protections, banking, workplace safety and public health. 

The decision gives "enormous power" to the courts to target other regulations they don't like, noted Hajin Kim, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, speaking to the BBC, as judges can now say that Congress did not explicitly authorise the agency to do a certain thing. 

Last year, the US rejoined the Paris Agreement - having been taken out by one-term president and climate change denier Donald Trump - and pledged to contribute to limiting global warming to 2° Celsius above preindustrial levels. However, according to the watchdog Climate Action Tracker (CAT), the country is not yet meeting its obligations under the agreement.

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