The Obama administration is quietly working on new greenhouse gas emissions targets to deliver to the United Nations, even as it struggles to craft regulations that will enable the United States to meet its current carbon-cutting goals.
With Republicans striking out at President Obama's climate change agenda as part of an effort to unseat vulnerable Senate Democrats in November, the administration is hardly advertising its effort. But according to officials involved in the process, the treacherous political terrain has not stopped the administration from forging ahead with developing new emissions goals.
In at least three interagency meetings at the White House since September, administration sources said, officials have debated whether the new goals should extend to 2025 or 2030. They also have laid out the scientific and economic modeling that must be done in the coming months and discussed whether a new target should assume Congress will eventually enact climate legislation or whether the White House must continue to use existing authority under the Clean Air Act to squeeze out more emissions reductions. President Obama's new special adviser, John Podesta, is expected to have an overarching role in the process.
The targets will succeed the pledge President Obama delivered at the 2009 Copenhagen, Denmark, climate change summit to cut America's carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade. The United States along with China, Brazil, India and more than 190 other nations agreed to deliver the new goals by early next year as part of an effort to ink a new global climate deal in Paris in 2015.
"The logic here is to try to build support for a whole set of robust commitments from major economies, a process that encourages countries to come forth prior to Paris with the greatest ambition possible," said Peter Ogden, director of international energy and climate policy at the Center for American Progress and a former senior White House and State Department climate change official.
"The strength of the agreement is going to be on the strength of collective action, and the U.S. needs to be absolutely a big part of that," Ogden said.
Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, added: "People are talking about the post-2020 targets. They're not doing much in public yet, but everybody's thinking about it. The game is afoot."
Is the 'pen' mightier than Republicans?
The 2015 agreement is expected to for the first time deliver emissions cuts from all countries, not just a handful of industrialized nations. In Washington, D.C., this week, French President François Hollande and Obama started to lay the groundwork for the deal, penning a joint op-ed in The Washington Post urging all nations to "join us in pursuit of an ambitious and inclusive global agreement that reduces greenhouse gas emissions through concrete actions."
But push-back could come quickly and furiously. Several GOP lawmakers contacted by ClimateWire blasted the work on new targets as another example of the Obama administration's "go it alone" approach that, like the current U.S. EPA effort to rein in emissions from coal-fired power plants, will face fierce opposition from Congress.
"He's ramming down the throats of the American people conditions that other countries are not meeting at this point in time, and at a time when our economy is still struggling," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.).
Whitfield argued that the Copenhagen targets were set unilaterally -- the 17 percent figure comes from legislation that passed the House but never came to a vote in the Senate. Designing carbon limits, he said, shows "the president is out of touch. He seems to be more concerned about the United Nations than he does about the American people."
And Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) denounced Obama as "planning to use his infamous pen to wreak even more havoc on the economy," adding, "The last thing Americans need is more red tape from Washington that will shut down coal plants, devastate communities, destroy their jobs and make our country less competitive."
Democrats, meanwhile, did not go out of their way to defend the need for post-2020 targets. Asked for comment, aides to longtime climate champions like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) instead pointed to old statements their bosses had made broadly praising the administration's Climate Action Plan.
The office of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) noted that in a panel discussion last week, the senator called climate change a global problem that demands global leadership, adding, "This may be the only issue in which the Republican Party doesn't want the United States to exercise global leadership. They want to just say, 'Well, China and India aren't going to do it, so we just have to give up.'"
The case for 'maximum ambition'
According to two people close to the process, the work surrounding post-2020 goals began in September 2013, a few months before the annual U.N. climate negotiating sessions in Warsaw, Poland. It was clear going into that November conference that countries would face pressure to put new targets on the table, possibly as early as this year.
The State Department felt 2014 was too early -- particularly with midterm elections on the horizon. But they also feared being blamed for blocking progress toward a 2015 deal. That's when the first internal conversations began between U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern's office and the White House, allowing Stern to say publicly in Warsaw that a post-2020 process was underway and lobby, successfully, for countries to formally unveil their targets during the first quarter of 2015 (ClimateWire, Nov. 18, 2013).
The week after Warsaw, Stern met with Special Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Dan Utech, White House Associate Director for Energy and Climate Change at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Domestic Policy Council Rick Duke, and others to discuss the goals with the State Department pushing for what one person called "maximum ambition."
Even as Republicans denounce climate efforts at home, developing countries are pressuring the United States hard in the other direction. The realpolitik of the climate negotiations, analysts agree, is that with Congress likely to restrict climate funding for developing countries, the United States will have to put out an aggressive target if it has any hope of pushing China, India and others to also make serious commitments.
And then there are the demands of science. According to the U.N. Environment Programme, if countries intend to avert catastrophic warming, they need to reduce annual emissions to an average 40 gigatons by 2025 from the 50 gigatons emitted in 2010.
One key question being kicked around inside the White House is how far into the future the new targets should extend. A 2025 target, some argue, has the advantage of establishing concrete near-term policies while also keeping pressure on countries by getting them back to the negotiating table in just another five years. But those nearer-term numbers might not be terribly ambitious. A 2030 number, on the other hand, could be quite ambitious, but with a lot more wiggle room that casts doubt on whether governments will stay on track to meet the goals.
One idea environmental groups are starting to float is a hybrid approach in which countries might offer a binding target for 2025 and an "aspirational," or what some call "indicative," target for 2030.
"I think there's a lot of interest in that," said David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute's international climate initiative. He also argued that it will be important for all countries to offer a consistent time frame for the post-2020 cuts, saying, "If you have a hodgepodge ... that would become a problem. There are ways to deal with [different] base years, but a multiplicity of end dates would become a real problem."
A far touchier question, at least for the United States, will be whether the White House assumes Congress will be able to pass some type of climate legislation in the next five to 10 years. Assuming so would allow the United States to put a bigger target on the international table -- but it also might not be realistic. On the other hand, if the administration assumes Congress is not likely to act and any further climate action will require more executive authority, that raises the question of whether the White House can reasonably squeeze deeper cuts out of EPA regulations and other unilateral measures.
Analysts described the debates as a constant trade-off between ambition and political certainty.
"The balancing act with all of this is that you want to set a target that is ambitious yet reasonable. You don't want to highball it or lowball it," Ogden said.
China and Brazil weigh stronger moves
The United States isn't the only government hard at work. The European Union's executive arm earlier this year issued its recommendations for 40 percent carbon cuts going out to 2030. Meanwhile, leaders in China, analysts there say, are seriously debating a 2025 peak year for greenhouse gas emissions as well as an absolute cap on coal within the next five years. As the talks in Warsaw wrapped up late last year, China's lead climate negotiator, Su Wei, told ClimateWire that China has already "launched consultations for actions that would be very important to fight climate change."
In India, the topic is somewhat murkier. Jayanthi Natarajan was replaced as environment minister by the country's minister of petroleum and natural gas -- a move that doesn't bode well for climate action. But even before the switch, Natarajan said her country wasn't in a hurry to develop new climate targets. Speaking to reporters the final night of the Warsaw talks, she said India first wants to see wealthy countries take more ambitious steps to cut emissions prior to 2020 and ramp up finance.
"When that happens, we'd be very happy to talk" about India's post-2020 targets, she said.
On the other end of the spectrum is Brazil, which Secretary of Climate Change Carlos Klink told ClimateWire is actively participating in efforts to devise a post-2020 target. Klink touted the work Brazil has done to meet its Copenhagen target and exceed its pledge to cut deforestation by 80 percent from historic levels by 2020, as well as to weave climate change into the highest levels of government decisionmaking.
He said Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs currently is leading an emissions modeling effort that is devising scenarios for ways both Brazil and others can achieve maximum ambition in the years after 2020, and said "our expectation is to have some very good ideas by the end of 2014."
Klink said there is going to be an enormous level of expectation on wealthy countries. But, he said, if industrialized nations like the United States can prove they are truly taking climate change seriously, it could pave the way for an ambitious 2015 deal.
"If they really show in a clear way there is a new commitment," Klink said, "I think that will help."