US-China climate deal: Can Obama make good on his promise?

President Obama made a sweeping pledge to slash carbon emissions by 2025, but his tenure as president ends in two years. Will the impact of the landmark agreement endure beyond his presidency?

Andy Wong/AP
US President Barack Obama smiles while he speaks during a joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China Wednesday. Obama and Xi sought to play down points of tension between their two nations Wednesday, unveiling a flurry of agreements on climate change, military cooperation and trade, while casting their own burgeoning relationship as candid and productive.

[Update: This article has been updated to include additional comments from Union of Concerned Scientists President Kenneth Kimmell.]

The United States and China have reached a historic agreement to curb their respective greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades, setting respective national goals aimed at combating the rising impacts of global climate change. But with President Obama set to leave office in two years, the long-term future of those US pledges remains in doubt.

The new emissions reduction targets pledged by Mr. Obama in Beijing last night are some of the most ambitious the US has ever agreed to. With a Republican Party already critical of Obama's environmental policy set to take over both chambers of Congress in January, White House officials are indicating that the president could circumvent an uncooperative legislature and reach that target solely through executive action.

Under the agreement, the US pledged to cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent before 2025. But Obama, a key architect of the agreement, will be out of office almost 10 years before that deadline. He may be able to put policies in place to reach this goal, but the actual work of cutting those emissions will fall mostly to the next president or two.

Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, says that the "breakthrough" US-China deal itself is likely to stimulate international action on climate change. A series of international climate talks are scheduled over the next few months, culminating in a United Nations meeting in Paris in late 2015, where nations are hoping to agree to a universal climate agreement. Mr. Lieberthal adds that the impacts of climate change are also likely to become more visible over the next two years.

"If we have a new president come in in 2016 who is unalterably opposed to any measures to do with climate change, he or she will not be facing the same situation President Obama has faced to this point," Lieberthal says.

"If you have a national leadership that says all of this is not happening, that there’s nothing we can do that will make a difference," Lieberthal adds, "I think that is going to be increasingly untenable political position for either party."

While lawsuits could be filed challenging Obama's executive actions after he has left office, successive administrations would not be able to simply reverse those polices without jumping through some political and legal hoops, says Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass.

 "I think there are a number of rules and regulations that can and will be put into place before the Obama administration leaves office," Mr. Kimmell says. And once they're in place "it's very difficult to undo those rules and regulations."

The next two years could be critical in ensuring America's ability to achieve its new climate goals. The Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out two policy initiatives Obama could establish before 2016 to help reduce US emissions: tightening even further regulations on CO2 emissions for coal plants, and increasing the energy efficiency of vehicles.

Still, it's likely that any executive action Obama takes to reach the new climate goals will be challenged in state courts. If the policies are upheld in court, Lieberthal says, "they're going to change the reality on the ground."

"There is a lot coming together before 2016, and I think that constrains what can be done by climate change deniers," he adds. If in 2016 a president is elected "who really takes this as a central element of his or her administration to undo what President Obama has done, they won't undo it all, but they could undo part of it."

It's possible the climate deal with China could become a 2016 election issue. Obama's most recent executive action on climate change – a slate of new regulations through the US Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants – was criticized heavily during the midterm election campaign for crippling coal industry jobs, and is facing legal challenges in several states.

Prominent Republican lawmakers appear to be making similar arguments against the climate deal with China.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell – who is expected to be appointed majority leader in January – said in a statement that Obama "would dump on his successor" an unrealistic plan that "would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs."

Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma – who is expected to chair the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee – called the new deal "a non-binding charade" in a statement.

"The American people spoke against the President's climate policies in this last election," Senator Inhofe added in the statement. "As we enter a new Congress, I will do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA's unchecked regulations."

A senior Obama administration official told CNN that they believe "we can proceed with the authority we already have" should Congress try to stop the initiative.

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