Observers cautiously optimistic that aggressive new EPA power plant rule may help 2015 deal

The Obama administration's proposed power plant regulations out today are a "welcome development" for the global climate change negotiations, U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres will say in a statement today.

Figueres' comments sent to administration officials over the weekend and obtained by ClimateWire say the new rules "will send a good signal to nations everywhere that one of the world's biggest emitters is taking the future of the planet and its people seriously."

"I fully expect action by the United States to spur others into taking concrete action -- action that can set the stage and put in place the pathways that can bend the global emissions curve down in order to keep worldwide temperatures under 2 degrees Celsius this century," Figueres said.

Figueres' praise was echoed by former U.N. climate czar Yvo de Boer, as well.

Yvo de Boer, who steered the international treaty discussions through the 2009 mega-meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, where nations failed to develop a binding treaty, said seeing the world's biggest emitters finally moving forward with concrete plans to cut carbon will encourage others to announce new targets. Countries are trying once more to seal a deal, this time in Paris in 2015.


"It's of critical importance," de Boer said of the pending U.S. move. "The epicenter of the climate negotiations is now very much formed by the United States and China. What the U.S. and China do will set the bar in terms of the level of ambition of whatever is agreed in 2015."

Sources yesterday confirmed that the Obama administration will announce a plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants as much as 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The Wall Street Journal first reported details of the proposal yesterday.

The numbers are in line with the promise President Obama made in Copenhagen, Denmark, to cut U.S. emissions about 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. And whatever 2030 target is ultimately selected will also become the starting line for the U.S. offering to the new global agreement, which for the first time will capture targets from all major emitting nations for the years after 2020.

The new rule covers only the power sector, but the post-2020 target, when it comes, will also encompass what the Obama administration believes it can deliver from vehicles and other sources.

Countries have agreed to formally announce their targets by the first quarter of next year.

Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the power plant rules will undoubtedly breed goodwill. But, he said, with developing countries being pushed to take on more emissions cuts and few assurances that there will be money to help them adapt to climate change or develop clean energy systems, the new U.S. game plan can't hope to fully unlock politically fraught negotiations.

"It definitely helps with the atmosphere and reinforces the positive momentum that the U.S. got out of the president's speech last year. This is the big centerpiece that everyone is waiting for," Meyer said.

But, he added, "There's some very difficult issues in this process that this is not going to be a magic bullet to."

2015 deal 'a big piece of business' for U.S.

But not everyone shared an early enthusiasm for the U.S. announcement.

Venezuelan lead climate negotiator Claudia Salerno declined to comment until the full details were unveiled, saying, "Announcements sometimes sound great in front of the press but are really so weak that they don't change anything."

The U.S. announcement comes as negotiators descend upon Bonn, Germany, for a midyear negotiating session. There is supposed to be a ministerial-level series of meetings, as well, but several activists said only a handful of ministers are actually slated to attend.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration is widely expected to tout the new regulations during the Bonn session. A senior administration official last week emphasized that U.S. domestic efforts on climate change intersect with the country's international goals.

"Any successful international climate agreement is going to depend on many nations, including the U.S., making commitments to reduce their emissions. Actions that nations take domestically are going to have to be a part of how we build an international response, because everybody has to step up to the plate," the official said.

"We are willing to take steps ... but we are going to need countries like China and India, which are emerging emitters, to take steps, as well. That's a big piece of business for us, and it's going to demand leadership. We really need the entire international community to make their commitments, to stand by those commitments in a transparent manner, so that's what we'll be pursuing."

Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum called the announcement a signal that Obama is "ready to deliver on his promise" to make climate change a top priority.

"We are still unpacking the numbers, but the president's proposed new rules are a very welcome step in the right direction from an administration that, after a long wait, has turned the corner. Our sense now is that the U.S. is very much seeking to lead from the front in tackling global warming," he said.

Still, some cautioned that other countries already are questioning America's long-term commitment by asking if a future Republican president might overturn the regulations. And de Boer recalled that the United States under former President Clinton signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but Congress refused to ratify it.

"I have seen the U.S. negotiate very, very hard on many issues and then at the end of the day not sign on the dotted line," he said. Countries, he cautioned, remain wary that even as the current president orders up significant domestic climate action, "it doesn't mean the U.S. will sign the check at the end of the meal."



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