How will U.S. meet its emissions targets? World wonders

Source: Jean Chemnick and Lisa Friedman • Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011

DURBAN, South Africa — One of the top U.S. goals in international climate discussions has been to make sure that other countries do what they say they are going to do — whether that means to reduce emissions, protect forests or spend money the way it is supposed to be spent.

But supporters of climate action say the world’s largest historical emitter talks the talk, but doesn’t always walk the walk — especially when it comes to explaining how it plans to make the greenhouse gas cuts President Obama promised the world in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.The State Department negotiators who are representing the United States at the Conference of the Parties in Durban this week insist that the United States will meet its pledge to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels this decade. But they have yet to say how.”Stay tuned, I guess,” U.S. envoy Todd Stern told reporters this week when asked for details.He argued that between fuel efficiency and other new regulations the Obama administration has put in place, the United States has curbed emissions by about 6 percent.

“A good deal has been done by the U.S. already, more than has ever been done,” he said. But the real key, even Stern suggested, will be getting a new climate measure through Congress.

“I think that it is quite possible there will be legislation on the road to 2020,” Stern said. “We will keep pushing on.”

Most observers of any stripe who follow happenings on Capitol Hill say it will be years before Congress again turns its attention to climate change. The House passed a cap-and-trade bill in 2009 sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), but the Senate never took it up. Even advocates for U.S. action to curb emissions say opponents of the bill won the messaging war by labeling it “cap and tax” and warning it would deal a fatal blow to a still-struggling economy.

With Republicans now in the majority in the House — and with control of the Senate in play next November — climate change has disappeared from the congressional agenda entirely. And it is likely to stay sidelined at least until the economy recovers.

“If, by a climate bill, Todd Stern meant to imply a cap-and-trade monstrosity like Waxman-Markey would be enacted, then he must be delusional,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said in a statement yesterday.

“Of course, if our economy remains anemic under President Obama’s policies, it may be possible to dramatically reduce U.S. emissions,” he added, jabbing at Obama’s economic vulnerabilities. “After all, a smaller economy produces fewer emissions. Developing and deploying advanced technology is the only way to reduce emissions and continue economic growth, and that process is amenable to neither near-term U.N. targets nor by dispensing green pork to political supporters like Solyndra.”

Looking for U.S. to lead

But whatever the political pressures on the Obama administration, those who have the most to lose if climate change goes unchecked say the United States must step up to the plate. Leaders of developing countries from Bangladesh to the Maldives say their only hope for survival is if major emitters like the United States take their promises seriously.

“Developing countries know that the American negotiators here are being held hostage by the U.S. Congress,” said Mark Lynas, climate change adviser to Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed.

Countries like his own may “suspend their disbelief” for a while, he said, but the United States must keep its promise eventually.

Meanwhile, Lynas said he hoped the United States would improve its negotiating position as well as its domestic policies.

U.S. negotiators have drawn widespread criticism for their refusal to begin talks on a new legally binding international emissions treaty until all major developing countries agree to accept binding targets.

“The weakest position of all would be a U.S. that blocks the process here whilst doing nothing at home, either,” Nasheed said.

Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, was even more blunt.

“Who is the U.S.? Is it a country? Is it a bankrupt economy? Does it care for anybody? Can it care for anybody?” said Rahman, who is also one of Bangladesh’s leading climate scientists.

Experts on environmental policy say that Stern is right — the Obama administration has enough tools at its disposal to lower emissions substantially, especially with the help of state and regional programs. Many of these improvements are already in the pipeline. But some question whether U.S. EPA and other agencies will have the courage to implement tough enough restrictions to close the gap, especially in an election year.

EPA regulations for carbon dioxide from power plants and oil refineries are due out early next year after being delayed. There is no indication yet of how stringent they will be.

Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said in an interview in Durban that the president’s decision in September to pull the plug on a long-sought ozone rule, combined with delays on the carbon rules, has left room for doubt.

“They’re not sending a signal of confidence and political will to this process by dithering on this at home,” he said.

“And meanwhile they’re demanding transparency from China, India and others on how they’re going to meet their pledges, but we’re giving no transparency on how we’re going to do ours,” he added.

Jennifer Morgan, director of energy and climate programs for the World Resources Institute (WRI), said the United States’ failure to demonstrate how it can meet its targets — for both emissions reduction and financing — could hurt the country’s clout.

“I think countries have been waiting for a long time for the U.S. to move forward in tackling climate change domestically and being part of the response on the international level,” she said.

“But they don’t see a plan, they don’t see clear statements out of the White House on some of these things,” she continued. “So they’re a bit perplexed.”

WRI is one of the few groups to attempt to calculate the emissions reductions that could be achieved by the full U.S. carbon regime, including EPA regulations, complementary federal policies like the renewable fuel standard, and state carbon and renewable energy standards. The finding was that if regulators pursue the toughest standards possible under law, the United States could reduce its emissions by 14 percent below 2005 standards by 2020. So it could make progress, but not all the way.

Larry Schweiger, president of National Wildlife Federation, said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has done her best to raise the agency’s ambitions, adding that EPA regulations for conventional pollutants will also curb carbon dioxide by shifting the nation’s power mix.

“I think what Lisa Jackson is doing is to move that process forward in a way that will trigger the shutting down of those old coal plants and moving to new energy technologies,” he said.

But he said these achievements were not widely known in the international community.

“All they know is that we lost the fight on legislation,” Schweiger said. “Plus, they see the positions of our administration here and wonder whether we’re ever going to come to the table.”