Washington – The United States has formally told the United Nations that it is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17-percent by the end of the decade, assuming that currently proposed regulations are implemented.
That figure would be in line with a central goal President Barack Obama laid out in a watershed climate-focused plan unveiled in June. While environmentalists have been generally supportive of that initiative, known as the Climate Action Plan, the 17-percent goal (to be reduced below 2005 levels) has struck some as too cautious.
On Thursday the United States handed over two reports to the United Nations, one charting the country’s progress on cutting emissions and a second that, for the first time, forecasts estimated future improvement. The reports come a day before a U.N. panel is set to unveil its fifth major update analysis on the causes and ramifications of climate change.
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“This biennial report is the first ever of its kind, and will serve as a benchmark for other countries, and will hold them accountable for action on climate change,” Heather Zichal, President Obama’s top aide on climate change, told an audience here on Wednesday.
“The world looks to the United States for leadership on climate change, and we feel we must deliver it both at home and abroad … In his speech [in June], President Obama made clear that if Congress wouldn’t take action on climate change, put our nation on the path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020, he would.”
While the United Nations has required four-yearly reporting on countries’ existing emissions-reduction policies, the United States was reportedly central in pushing the new biennial, forward-looking reporting on what countries are planning to do to combat climate change. (The U.S. biennial report is actually still in draft form, open to public comment through late October.)
The reports find that U.S. climate emissions have already begun to come down, currently resting at their lowest point in a decade and a half. Officials now estimate a range of potential emissions cuts by 2020 – depending on how implementation of regulations proceeds, greenhouse gases could come down by 14 to 20 percent below 2005 levels.
Under the hood
To get anywhere near those levels, the administration says the country will need to impose restrictions on the carbon output of both new and current power plants. It will also need to ratchet up energy efficiency standards while tamping down on two particularly noxious gases, methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
U.S. regulators have taken initial steps on several of these issues, most recently last week’s proposal to significantly limit carbon emissions from current power plants (a similar proposal for current power plants is expected next June). Yet nearly all of these regulatory measures remain highly controversial, with the business lobby and Republican lawmakers offering varying levels of pushback.
“Today’s report provides a first chance to look under the hood of the President’s Climate Action Plan,” Lou Leonard, head of climate change programmes for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said Thursday.
“Other nations like Mexico, China and those in the E.U. are watching closely to see whether the U.S. will make good on its promises and show global leadership. As the first-of-its-kind report under new international guidelines, the assessment should set a strong example of transparency and thoroughness.”
Leonard noted that the report shows the 17 percent target is “achievable but by no means yet certain”.
Further, implementation of many of these regulations will require significant cooperation with local-level forces.
“To ensure we reach and surpass the 2020 goals, action in U.S. cities and counties is another critical piece of the puzzle, and hundreds of communities are doing their part by strengthening building codes, promoting clean energy and building smarter transportation,” said Brian Holland, director of climate programmes at ICLEI USA, a network of 450 local governments.
“Federal collaboration and support for local government action has been instrumental in achieving emissions reductions in leading cities. Much more will be necessary to stabilise global climate in the long run.”
Others are questioning both Obama’s goal and his route to achieving it. Currently the president’s energy approach is known broadly as “all of the above”, a catchphrase meant to suggest (particularly to conservatives) that he will not be making ideologically driven energy decisions.
Yet a rising chorus has warned that continued reliance on fossil fuels is undercutting the quick scale-up in renewable energy technologies that many feel is necessary to make real progress on cutting U.S. – and global – carbon emissions.
This is particularly true with regard to the new surfeit of cheap U.S. natural gas following the introduction of technologies allowing for a process known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”). While this glut has accounted for much of the United States’ dip in emissions in recent years, as gas has increasingly supplanted coal, it has also come to define U.S. energy policy for the foreseeable future.
“You can’t solve climate change with an ‘all of the above’ approach – you have to go ‘all in’ on a clean energy future. The White House continues to have a schizophrenic approach to climate policy,” Jamie Henn, communications director for 350.org, an advocacy group, told IPS.
“On the one hand, the Obama administration is taking important steps forward with investments in renewable energy and the recent power plant regulations. On the other, they’re letting fracking go unregulated, still deliberating on the Keystone XL [crude oil] pipeline, and weakening key international climate policies.”
While the United States set records last year for new wind power installations – and is setting similar records this year with solar – the federal regulatory regime overseeing incentives for renewable energy here remains notably uneven, leaving investors and utilities with little long-term confidence. Fixing this issue, many argue, would allow both for this sector to blossom and for the federal government to substantially increase its emissions-reduction goals.
“A 17-percent reduction in emissions is actually far below what we should be making,” Henn says. “If anything, the [new U.N.] report underlines the need for more immediate and ambitious action.”