U.S. finds its global ambition clipped by politics at home

By Jean Chemnick | 12/10/2015 01:26 PM EST

LE BOURGET, France — The United States wants the international climate accord being crafted here to be as ambitious as it can be.

LE BOURGET, France — The United States wants the international climate accord being crafted here to be as ambitious as it can be.

The Obama administration’s wish list for the U.N. summit that’s now in the home stretch includes ambitious new transparency measures modeled on U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory that might ensure that countries make emission reductions they promised.

U.S. negotiators also want language requiring parties to return to the table in the next few years to improve on those pledges. And just yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry announced the United States would join an ambitious new coalition that aims to undercut a more conservative stance taken by certain high-emitting emerging economies that some see weakening the deal’s environmental impact (Greenwire, Dec. 9).


But domestic politics have followed American diplomats to France, requiring State Department negotiators to insist that the deal not make emissions cuts subject to international law so that President Obama doesn’t have to ask for Senate approval.

Kerry reminded negotiators yesterday that mandatory emissions cuts made it impossible for the United States to join a previous climate deal negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, 18 years ago.

"Having been at Kyoto, and trying to pass it on the floor of the United States Senate, and not being able to, we have learned the lessons of the past," Kerry said.

Kerry also announced the United States would join the Marshall Islands, the European Union and a group of other highly vulnerable and progressive developing countries — more than 100 in total — that would call themselves the "high ambition coalition." The group would seek to influence the talks in their waning days, pressing for a deal that would set a goal of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, demand a five-year review with increased national targets, and include new details about adaptation and mitigation finance (E&ENews PM, Dec. 9).

"Addressing climate change will require a fundamental change in the way that we decide to power our planet," Kerry said. "And our aim can be nothing less than a steady transformation of a global economy."

But the leaders of the coalition say the United States had no hand in creating the new negotiating group and had to audition to get in.

The European Union has been talking to a group of progressive developing nations about creating the group since before the 2012 round of talks in Durban, South Africa. At a meeting in Papua, New Guinea, this September and in subsequent meetings in Ecuador and Morocco, the European Union and developing nations formulated the group and came up with a platform, a diplomat said. The United States asked to join in November but was initially denied membership before it made the case that it would show greater flexibility in these talks.

The Obama administration declined to comment.

But European negotiators say the United States has shown ample ambition in its domestic policy and is therefore a welcome member of the new pressure group.

"The United States has a very high level of ambition," said Miguel Arias Cañete, the E.U. climate commissioner. He noted U.S. support for keeping warming below a threshold scientists say will avoid the worst effects of climate change, a review process for commitments and greater transparency measures.

"The only difference between us is that they have a political situation in which they cannot have binding mitigation commitments, and we are looking for a solution to that," he said.

The European Union still supports making pledges binding under international law.

Elina Bardram, who heads the E.U. delegation, said she credited Obama with "raising U.S. ambition" domestically.

"The Obama administration has taken unprecedented steps to also help forge a global agreement. And we consider the U.S. a major partner," she said. "So I don’t see any paradox in them joining the ambition coalition."

Major developing countries like Brazil, India, China and South Africa were not asked to join the new coalition — which seems aimed in part at drawing attention to some of their own long-held positions on issues like how an agreement should obligate countries that are not historically wealthy.

Alf Wills, a South African negotiator, said he wasn’t offended that his country was not asked to participate, though he agreed the name seemed to hint that other countries are not seeking a tough deal.

And Chinese top negotiator Gao Feng reminded reporters that China joined the Kyoto Protocol, unlike the United States.

"I hope the U.S. will be with us this time," he said. "They have been away for so long. This time we have to get the U.S. on board."

Mixed reviews from greens

Meanwhile, environmental groups ran the gamut from commending the United States for participating in the new coalition to warning that it still isn’t doing enough.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said after Kerry’s speech yesterday that a new grant of aid for poor countries and other U.S. positions would help inject ambition into the deal.

"We know the agreement won’t do enough to protect climate, so what’s critical is that we have a framework that has the mechanisms to ladder up ambition," he said. The "essential elements" are U.S. priorities of monitoring, review and verification and the five-year stock-taking provision.

"I think that the president wants to leave a legacy of doing all he can for climate," he said.

But Ben Schreiber of Friends of the Earth said the United States has weakened the deal rather than strengthened it.

"The entire architecture that has developed in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change has been developed around the intransigence of the U.S.," he said. "Let’s be clear, though, this isn’t because the U.S. is exerting leadership. This is because the U.S. is the world’s largest historical emitter, and they are holding the rest of the world hostage."

Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, reminded an audience here that Republican lawmakers remain hostile toward the process. China’s commitment to peak its emissions by 2030, in particular, has been a lightning rod. GOP lawmakers view that commitment as weak compared to the U.S. commitment to cut emissions up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Both commitments were submitted to the United Nations in the run-up to Paris, setting the stage for 180 other countries to submit their own plans for cutting emissions in papers called intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs.

"Congress asked me, ‘Isn’t it true that China’s [commitment] is in China’s best interest?’" Steer said. "I said, ‘Yes. Actually, America’s INDC is also in their own best interest.’ The United States should be planning to do this even if climate change didn’t exist."

Steer pointed to the shrinking list of major issues still on the table here.

"There’s still a lot at play for the next 48 hours," he said. "We need an agreement on a five-year ramping up of ambitions starting in 2020."

Getting language in the deal about a long-term goal for decarbonizing the world economy by midcentury is being hammered home by both environmental and business groups here.

"What business is looking for is confidence that ambition won’t end with Paris but that we would in fact progressively raise ambition over time," said Edward Cameron, managing director of We Mean Business, a coalition of corporations.

Reporter Joel Kirkland contributed.