The historic emissions deal between China and the U.S. removes a key barrier in United Nations-led efforts to craft a global climate pact. Now President Barack Obama has to find a way to make it happen at home.
An international agreement to curb greenhouse gases would go nowhere without participation from China and the U.S., the two biggest producers of carbon emissions, and until yesterday they were far apart on numerous issues.
With Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping now in accord that the world’s two largest economies bear a certain responsibility to take the lead in fighting climate change, other nations may be more willing to follow suit when envoys meet in Lima next month for the next round of UN-organized negotiations.
“This could be a first critical step to unlocking the logjam in the climate-change negotiations,” said Yvo de Boer, who oversaw the UN effort on global warming from 2006 to 2010, in a telephone interview from Seoul. “It becomes much easier for other pieces of the puzzle to fall in place.”
China, for the first time, set a goal to cap its carbon emissions, while the U.S. agreed to accelerate its own efforts in the deal announced in Beijing yesterday.
In doing so, Xi broke ranks with India, Brazil and South Africa, while Obama will be returning to the U.S. to face a hostile congress.
“This deal is a non-binding charade,” Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who’s the senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “As we enter a new Congress, I will do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.”
Under the agreement, the U.S. pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The current U.S. target is to reach a level of 17 percent below 2005 emissions by 2020.
To make that happen, Obama is likely to sidestep Congress and go to regulatory agencies, business and environmental lobbyists predicted. The Environmental Protection Agency will join with the U.S. Energy, Interior and Agriculture departments to target carbon pollution from power plants, methane from oil and natural gas drillers and tailpipe emissions from trucks, railroads and even airplanes.
By bypassing Congress and not seeking legislation, Obama is taking the chance his policies will end with his presidency, said Stephen Eule, vice president for climate and technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy.
“It’s a toss of the dice whether other administrations will follow through,” Eule said in a phone interview. “The problem is the administration believes it can unilaterally set climate policy for the next 15 years without getting the buy-in of at least one other branch of government.”
‘Pushing the limit’
The new goals will be “pushing the limits of what can be done under existing law,” Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate & Energy Solutions and a former EPA deputy administrator, said in a statement.
The target set in the deal is grounded in a U.S. government analysis of actions permitted under existing law, without congressional support, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an analysis not yet made public.
Republican leaders made it clear that they expect Obama’s efforts to slow the U.S. economy.
“This unrealistic plan, that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs,” Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, said in a statement.
Potential economic effects have been one of the main hurdles in UN climate negotiations. China and other developing nations have been resistant to set pollution targets. In their view, richer nations that created the problem should move first. India, Brazil and South Africa have called for the UN to consider the historical emissions of all nations in determining how much each nation should act.
Under yesterday’s deal, China said its total carbon dioxide emissions would peak by 2030. The move helps address growing health concerns within its own population and from foreign companies regarding smog.
The “announcement is the political breakthrough we’ve been waiting for,” said Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator who led U.S. negotiations in the run-up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. “If the two biggest players on climate are able to get together, from two very different perspectives, the rest of the world can see that it’s possible to make real progress.”
The UN-led negotiations envision all nations setting pledges in the first quarter. That will lead to a deal in Paris in December 2015 that will take effect starting in 2020, when the current limits in the Kyoto Protocol lapse. The European Union has promised to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels, the most ambitious program announced to date.
“Those who have been arguing that the United States shouldn’t act on climate because other countries like China won’t join us will now need to look for new arguments to justify their real goal of avoiding any limits on carbon,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.