Will US partisanship block a global climate accord?

Ahead of December climate talks in Paris, the US today committed to cut its greenhouse emissions 28 percent. Mexico and the EU have made their pledges, reluctant nations and the GOP still stand between Obama and a climate deal.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
President Obama today committed the US to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025. That pledge could help in forging an international climate agreement in Paris later this year.

In an official plan submitted to the United Nations Tuesday, President Obama formally promised to cut US greenhouse gas emissions up to 28 percent over the next 10 years.

Obama's pledge is the latest in a series of executive-led efforts to bolster US climate policy ahead of this December’s international talks in Paris – widely seen as a last-ditch opportunity to foster unified global action to curb heat-trapping emissions.

Mr. Obama’s strength on climate policy is also his weakness. Cuts to meet his 28 percent reduction goal will come largely through the president’s power to regulate emissions from power plants, cars and trucks, and sources like methane leaks. The president circumvents Congressional opposition by going it alone on domestic and international climate policy, but he also risks foregoing a more consensus-based approach to global climate efforts. That could leave some in the international community wondering if they can rely on a ten-year commitment from an executive who will be in power for less than two of those years.  

“This submission is ambitious and achievable within existing legal authority,” White House Senior Advisor Brian Deese said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “Over the last eight years we have already cut carbon pollution more than any other country. By formalizing this goal, we’re committed to build on that progress and pick up the pace.”

The White House says that submitting the US’s 26 to 28 percent emissions reduction goal early will spark global cooperation in December climate negotiations in Paris. Those talks aim to strike an international agreement limiting climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions worldwide – a lofty goal that has eluded international negotiators for years.

But by sidestepping the legislative branch, the White House may have only further ignited the ire of those in Congress who say climate policies kill jobs and do little to better the environment.

“It’s clear that Congress is fairly split on this,” says Jennifer Morgan, global director of the Climate Change Program at the World Resources Institute, an international think tank, in a telephone interview Tuesday. “You do have strong support from Democrats and some Republicans for acting on climate. But clearly there’s a group sending different signals.”

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has signaled that he will fight Obama on his climate policies tooth and nail. Republicans argue that his moves to rein in emissions will kill jobs and raise electricity prices for ratepayers.

The top target for Republicans is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut US power plant emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Mr. McConnell has told state governors not to bother complying with the plan, and Republicans are challenging it in court.

“The Obama administration’s pledge to the United Nations today will not see the light of day with the 114th Congress,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma said in a statement Tuesday. “This pledge is reflective of the promise President Obama made with China in December, which allows China to continue to expand its energy infrastructure and increase emissions through 2030 while American taxpayers and businesses foot the bill of his extremist global warming agenda.”

But Congress may not get a say one way or another. Many of the actions being taken by Obama to meet the US’s commitment will be “difficult to undo because they’re under existing laws,” Mr. Deese said. In short, the President may not need new authority from a GOP congress to meet its pledge. And some say it’s possible an international agreement could be legally binding even without approval from this Congress.

“If the Paris agreement establishes a set of procedural requirements to implement and elaborate commitments that the US has already taken under a Senate-approved treaty, it may not require new approval by Congress,” says Elliot Diringer, executive vice president at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an Arlington Va.-based think tank.

The difficulty of reaching an international agreement – even as politics in individual countries complicate matter – is a problem facing many players, and one that experts say won’t necessarily hinder climate talks.

“The rest of the world understands that the president is putting forward the best effort possible using the tools he has at hand. And that’s a demonstration of leadership,” Mr. Diringer says. “What countries want to see is your goal, and whether you’re on track to meeting it.”

Countries agreed last year in Lima to submit their individual emissions-cutting pledges to the UN ahead of December’s climate talks. Then, in Paris, negotiators will cobble together individual commitments and iron out a final global deal for emissions cuts through 2025.

The European Union, Mexico, and now the US have met the informal March 31 deadline for submitting their targets, banking on the fact that early commitments to slash emissions will build momentum before negotiators are down to the wire in Paris.

But hurdles remain: Growing economies like India and Brazil still haven’t submitted pledges to cut emissions, casting doubt on developing nations’ willingness to reining in their carbon footprints – especially since many rely on cheap but emissions-heavy coal for growth. And major developed countries like Japan, Canada, and Australia have yet to submit their intended carbon emissions reductions. It’s not even clear if the US will be able to meet its current climate targets of slashing emissions 17 percent by 2020. What’s more, the policies Obama will use meet his goal could be struck down in court or abandoned by a future presidential administration.

“All the major economies need to come in with their national plans to demonstrate what they're going to do to solve the problem,” Ms. Morgan says.

Still, the US and China’s bilateral climate agreement last fall – which committed China to peak its emissions by 2030, and the US to its 28 percent emissions cut by 2025 – offers a glimmer of hope. The US and China are the world’s two largest polluters, meaning their agreement to reduce emissions is a significant portion of total emissions.

And by submitting its intended emissions commitment early, the US may prove it’s serious and persuade other countries to cut emissions.

“There’s no way the US could be playing the role of engaging China, India or Japan if they didn’t have a serious national offer,” Morgan says.

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