LE BOURGET, France — President Obama’s top advisers have arrived in force here today to begin a final push toward a global climate accord, telling whoever will listen that U.S. carbon emissions reductions are here to stay.
U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and a fleet of White House officials joined 40,000 national delegates, global warming activists and journalists gathering in this Paris suburb. In their first appearances at the summit heading into the final stage of U.N.-led negotiations, McCarthy and Moniz emphasized the major U.S. talking point around its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
As fraught as American politics is, they said, federal carbon regulations are legally enforceable, even if Congress isn’t happy with the policy and a hostile Republican president is elected in 2016.
"We have political realities in terms of how we can move forward," Moniz said today. "The president made clear — and I think it’s very important — that ultimately we do eventually have legislation that provides an economywide approach. But in the meantime, we will emphasize executive authorities that already exist for meeting our ambitious targets."
EPA’s Clean Power Plan to cut emissions across the electricity sector is a core policy piece supporting the U.S. commitment ahead of the Paris talks to reduce emissions at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The U.N. climate summit, led by France, is pressing for an agreement by the end of this week.
"This rule is going to stand the test of time," McCarthy said, referring to the Clean Power Plan regulations. "This rule, despite what one might read, is being actively engaged by every state in the United States."
McCarthy and her air policy chief, Janet McCabe, who is also in Paris, have been the administration’s salespersons-in-chief for the past two years after Obama directed the agency to get moving on regulations. The power-sector regulation faces stiff opposition from Republican-led states in the South and other coal-dependent states. There are court challenges and vows to overturn the rule from nearly every candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
But McCarthy, McCabe, White House senior climate and energy adviser Brian Deese, Senate Democrats and even some friendly electric utilities are trying to beat back any narrative around U.S. inaction.
For much of this year, the White House made efforts to bring along China and India, the first and fourth-largest carbon emitters, on a path to a formal climate agreement. For that, it had to convince leaders of both countries that the U.S. economy will adopt carbon controls.
The White House is trying to shift discussions to the U.S. priorities for a final agreement, including establishing a five-year review period and an accountability system for checking nations’ progress on cutting emissions.
Today, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) made a rousing speech before the plenary of international delegates. Meanwhile, back in a decked-out museum in central Paris, California’s current governor, Jerry Brown (D), and energy-sector CEOs rallied activists.
‘The U.S. has taken clear action’
Any hope of Congress forging a political consensus around carbon came to a screeching halt after Obama returned from the last major U.N. climate summit in 2009. In 2010, the Senate let a House-passed carbon cap-and-trade bill die.
That history — and the long memories of delegates who recall Senate Republicans’ refusal to ratify the Kyoto accord in 1997 — is some of the context around the administration’s presence here.
"The U.S. has taken clear action," said McCabe, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation. "It’s important that people see the United States has done that."
In a panel discussion sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute, PG&E Corp. CEO Anthony Earley said cutting U.S. emissions will rely on electric utilities and states driving toward the Clean Power Plan’s target: cutting power emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
"From a deployment standpoint, we’ve shown that utilities are really the perfect organizations to leverage the scale we have in accelerating the transformation of the system," he said.
And Earley leaned on the notion that utilities — under some pressure from rooftop solar companies and other distributed generators — are still the backbone of the system, warning that policymakers shouldn’t "take it for granted."
The cost of implementing changes is "manageable," he asserted.
Multiple threads of discussion around deployment of energy technology are going on across Paris. And leaders here say "signals" are needed for the private sector to start spending billions of dollars on energy technology needed by India and other large developing countries.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates partnered with Moniz and the White House on a public-private partnership deal designed to raise billions of dollars through 2020. It would couple billions of dollars in investment from the wealthiest people in the world with a doubling of research and development spending by 20 nations. Under the plan, U.S. R&D spending on cleaner forms of energy technology would go from about $2 billion to $5 billion.
On a separate track is a call for $100 billion in financing for poor and developing countries to deploy new technology and protect themselves from the worst effects of global warming.
As this is happening, the small cadre of U.S. utility officials — mostly sustainability officers — is talking about Clean Power Plan implementation.
In California, deploying massive amounts of solar and wind power could eventually require a regional Western market, Earley told EnergyWire.
"We need to create regional electricity markets," he said. "The hallmark of renewables is that they’re unpredictable; we don’t control them. If you have a regional market, we’ll be better able to trade this clean energy."