The Obama administration formally promised the world today that the United States would use laws already on the books to cut greenhouse gases across the economy by at least 26 percent by 2025, and "to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28 percent."
Today’s submission tracks with the U.S.-China bilateral agreement President Obama announced last November in Beijing and uses a 2005 base line. China pledged at the time to peak its emissions by 2030 and to draw 20 percent of its power from non-fossil-fuel sources by that year.
The U.S. submission will form the core of its negotiating position during U.N. climate talks in Paris this December, which countries hope will finally produce a global climate agreement.
In a post today on the website Medium, White House senior adviser Brian Deese said that the U.S. target "is ambitious and achievable, and we have the tools we need to reach it."
The White House said in the submission that its goal will require the United States to cut emissions between 2.3 and 2.8 percent each year compared with 2005, an approximate doubling of the rate at which the U.S. economy has shed emissions over the previous decade. It will also put the United States on a trajectory to meet its goal of cutting emissions more than 80 percent by 2050, the administration said.
Deese wrote that the U.S. public will benefit from steps the executive branch will take to achieve the target — including regulations under the Clean Air Act, the Energy Policy Act, and the Energy Independence and Security Act. Efficiency and greenhouse gas restrictions will reduce fuel and electric bills and help avoid health care costs, he argued.
But he also emphasized that other countries must respond with commitments of their own.
"Under President Obama’s leadership, the United States is doing our part to take on this global challenge," he said.
In the Medium post and on a call this morning with reporters, Deese hammered home the importance of other countries submitting "timely, transparent, measurable and above all ambitious targets for cutting carbon pollution and building lower-carbon economies to the [U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change]."
At least 81 developed and developing countries are expected to offer these pledges, known in U.N. jargon as "intended nationally determined contributions," or INDCs. Governments were asked to submit their documents by today if possible, but only the European Union, Switzerland, Norway and Mexico have done so. But those who track the negotiations say the U.S. INDC will play a key role in prompting other top emitters to take formal action, including China and India.
"I think it’s a really important step to strengthen climate action, both here and abroad," said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "I think by stepping up early with an ambitious contribution, the U.S. is putting pressure on other countries to pitch in their fair share, too."
Changed political landscape
The last time the Obama administration offered the world a climate pledge was in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the submission was explicitly based on a cap-and-trade bill then moving through Congress sponsored by then-Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The administration even borrowed the bill’s target — 17 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2020.
But the political landscape has shifted since the president made that pledge in the Danish capital. Rather than advancing new laws, Democrats in Congress are now engaged in defending old ones that U.S. EPA and other agencies are using to fashion controls for carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases.
And today’s submission states that the United States can achieve its promised reductions through regulations that have already been promulgated or that will be final before Obama leaves office in January 2017.
This will include EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which is due to be finalized this summer. The submission does not say how much the existing power plant rule will cut carbon dioxide, though in the call Deese noted the draft rule’s 30 percent by 2030 reduction. Diringer said the administration would be unlikely to assign emissions reductions to particular policies as part of its U.N. submission.
"They can only describe in detail what they’re confident of, and to the degree that policy processes are still underway, it makes sense to preserve some flexibility in what you’re putting forward," he said.
The submission also mentioned new and pending rules for light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles, Energy Department building and appliance efficiency mandates, EPA’s forthcoming rules for landfill and oil and gas methane, and steps EPA has taken to phase out heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons.
While these policies will be final before 2017, the next administration would have to implement them — and not work with Congress to repeal them.
But on the same call this morning, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said that he regularly assures negotiators from other countries that U.S. laws are hard to change.
"Undoing the kind of regulation that we’re putting in place is something that is very tough to do, and countries ask me about the solidity of what we’re doing all the time, and that’s exactly what I explain," he said.
The submission assigns no role to Congress. "Congress having dropped the oar for the moment, I think the administration has decided it’s going to keep rowing," said Pete Ogden, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.
But Democrats in Congress rushed last night and this morning to register their approval.
The 118 Democratic members of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change released a letter to the president last night promising to "help you seize this opportunity to strengthen the global response to climate change."
The task force, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), praised the administration’s efforts to curb emissions without the help of Congress (ClimateWire, March 31).
GOP pans ‘costly promises’
Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a statement of her own that the INDC follows on Obama’s "demonstrated leadership" in forging the deal with China. "Today’s announcement confirms that the United States is doing its part to reduce dangerous carbon pollution, and this effort will continue to bring other countries along the path to a strong agreement in Paris," she said.
Republican opponents of U.S. participation in the U.N. climate processes cast today’s action as another unilateral effort by the administration that could prove costly to U.S. interests.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who last week floated an amendment to the nonbinding fiscal 2016 budget resolution opposing the administration’s climate diplomacy, tied the climate submission to the administration’s efforts to forge a nuclear agreement with Iran.
"Just as we witnessed throughout recent negotiations with Iran and during the previous climate agreement with China, President Obama and his administration act as if Congress has no role in these discussions," he said in a statement. "These costly promises should not be forced upon families and workers across America without the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate."
Today’s submission does not weigh in on the legal structure of the Paris accord, though Stern said again in today’s call that he favors a "hybrid" approach to legal form being floated by New Zealand (ClimateWire, Oct. 22, 2014).
The plan calls for countries to set domestic emissions targets of their choosing, then face legal obligations to give the United Nations a schedule for when those cuts will happen and to submit to binding review measures.
Stern said today that the approach should encourage "broad participation."
"It’s important generally to have this agreement really be applicable to all," he said.
But Blunt promised that the Senate will "not stand by" while the administration commits the United States to actions that could prove economically disastrous.
Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who leads a House Energy and Commerce Committee subpanel that has jurisdiction over EPA’s emissions rules, said in a statement that the House will not permit the president to act without Congress, either.
"We are not going to allow him to make unilateral international commitments based on assumptions from the Clean Power Plan and other rules that are pending or have not yet been proposed," said the Energy and Power Subcommittee chairman. "Given the constitutional, statutory, and other legal issues surrounding the Clean Power Plan, I don’t believe it will withstand judicial scrutiny."
Whitfield has floated legislative language that would allow states to opt out of the existing power plant rule.
Most environmental leaders, meanwhile, praised the administration’s action as a good "first step" toward bending the curve on emissions.
"To win the fight against climate change, the world first needs to turn the corner on global greenhouse gas emissions, so that they stop rising and start falling," said Nathaniel Keohane, vice president for international climate at the Environmental Defense Fund and a former economic adviser in the Obama administration. "Ultimately, the science is clear that the U.S. and other major emitters will need to do more to reduce emissions."
"In the coming months, we expect additional ambitious commitments to pour in that will further prove the world is ready to act and keep us on the right track to Paris and beyond," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement that mentioned the goal of avoiding more than 2 degrees Celsius of post-industrial warming. The administration has downplayed that goal in recent years.
But some left-leaning environmental groups panned the pledge as not robust enough.
"The starting gun in the race against global warming went off a long time ago, but the United States is still just jogging," said Kevin Bundy of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We need a stronger strategy. Global efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change depend on the United States making much more ambitious cuts to planet-warming pollution."