U.S. EPA's continuing mandate to implement the Clean Air Act will continue to generate new greenhouse gas emissions reductions that will allow the United States to tighten its future international climate commitments no matter who is next in the White House, Administrator Gina McCarthy said.
In an interview with ClimateWire yesterday ahead of next week's start to U.N. climate talks in Paris, McCarthy said that even if a Republican succeeds President Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., "the agency will continue to function as it has before."
And that means meeting statutory obligations to promulgate new rules and review old ones -- a process that will lead it to consider whether to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from petroleum refining and other sectors in the future.
"Well, they certainly are going to have to take a look at refineries," McCarthy said. "They'll be obligated to look at it."
These and other rules will allow the State Department in the coming years to deliver on future pledges of emissions reductions, McCarthy said, improving on its pledge ahead of this year's talks that the United States will cut emissions between 26 and 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025.
More than 150 countries have made emissions-reduction pledges ahead of Paris, but while taken together they would reduce the rate at which human-driven warming is occurring, the sum would still fall short of the cuts scientists say are needed to ensure the world a safe climate in decades to come.
U.S. negotiators are promoting text that would bring nations back to the negotiating table every five years after Paris with more ambitious pledges in hand. But while policies like the Clean Power Plan for existing units comprise the backbone of the 26-to-28-percent commitment, the United States will need to add to its policy arsenal in order to show deeper cuts in future years.
But the Clean Air Act provides for that, McCarthy said. The statute would require EPA under future administrations to review rules along a set timeline, including the existing power plant rule. And its policies will help drive the development of technologies that will allow for deeper reductions in the future, she said.
Hoping for improved technology
"If there's one thing that we've learned at EPA, it is that constantly revisiting [rules] allows you to take full advantage of technology developments," said McCarthy. The same will be true on the international front, as a deal in Paris sends a market signal that leads to business decisions that will eventually bring more ambitious global reduction targets within closer reach, she said.
This year's agreement will allow the world to "make a big leap forward, but that doesn't mean getting to a trajectory that science demands," she said. That's why future action will be needed in order to keep warming to the recommended 2 degrees Celsius that scientists recommend.
The U.S. emissions commitment -- or intended nationally determined contribution, in U.N. lingo -- had been enough to convince the world that the United States is a full participant in the process, according to McCarthy. When she attended the conference of the parties to the Montreal Protocol at the beginning of this month, McCarthy said she was asked for details about how the Clean Power Plan would withstand litigation and for assurances that Congress and a Republican president couldn't repeal it. But she was not told that it wasn't ambitious enough.
"Every country is respecting the seriousness of our commitment, because we're putting actions behind it," McCarthy said. "I'm not seeing any other country asking, 'Why aren't you doing this, couldn't you do more there?'"
She added that she had reached out repeatedly to her counterparts in foreign countries since the Clean Power Plan was completed last August to reassure them that the rule is on solid legal footing and could only be rolled back through a lengthy rulemaking process that would also require extensive litigation.
She said she did not know whether the United States would make any new announcements at the talks, perhaps when Obama addresses them on Nov. 30. While several Cabinet members including McCarthy herself are expected to travel to Paris, the White House has yet to release those plans, and McCarthy said she wasn't sure she'd be attending. But a new U.S. commitment would not be necessary to facilitate a successful outcome in Paris, she said.
McCarthy defined success in Paris in much the same way the State Department has. She said she hoped the summit would produce a deal that combined ambitious targets, more transparency and accountability provisions; financial and technical assistance for poor countries; and a mechanism to increase ambition in later years. While such an agreement would not be a "silver bullet," she said, it would be a solid foundation on which to build.