Obama plan could define 2015 UN climate deal

By John Parnell

Emission reduction policies announced by President Barack Obama last week could indicate the extent to which the US will commit to the new UN global climate treaty, according to experts tracking the talks.

The new UN deal to be negotiated by 2015, will see all nations rich and poor, sign-up to a pledge. These will likely fall somewhere on a sliding scale from legally binding emission reduction targets for developed nations to sustainable development commitments for the poorest.

The US failed to ratify the existing Kyoto Protocol treaty and has only a voluntary commitment under the UN climate change body, the UNFCCC.

Anthony Hobley, global head, sustainability & climate change at the Norton Rose Fulbright law firm, told RTCC the speech offered some clues to how the US may seek to engage with a new UN climate deal.

“Much more is said about working with other countries directly than is said about the international negotiations. And this is borne out by the evidence of US international action on climate change in the last few years,” said Hobley.

“We cannot forget that international law and particularly multi-lateral treaties have historically reflected what major powers do anyway rather than setting new standards for them to achieve.

Obama’s climate plans could offer some indication of how far the US will go in negotiations on the new global climate treaty (Source: Flickr/UNFCCC)

“Therefore the ambition of any global treaty on climate change may likely be judged by how successful the President is in getting his own country to act and possibly encouraging a divided Congress into action.”

“I would expect that any comprehensive agreement reached in 2015 which the US is politically able to back will very much reflect the domestic action that it is already taking and international action it has agreed to take in bilateral agreements with other countries,” he added.

The US has a bi-lateral agreement with China that has already yielded a commitment to phase out the hydrofluorocarbon family of super global warming gases.

A working group to find similar opportunities for a bi-lateral deal with India was established last week during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the country.

The US is currently proposing a framework for the new international deal that would allow countries to set their own targets, which would then be scrutinised by other nations. There are fears this could lead to low ambition.

Two-way street

Will McGoldrick, climate change policy manager at WWF-Australia told RTCC that in many cases international negotiations had a role to play in driving further progress by governments at home.

“It’s fair to say that in international agreements, countries generally commit to things they are confident of delivering or are on track to deliver, but the counterfactual logic is that if there wasn’t that international process putting pressure on that country, would they be doing what they said they would do? The international agreement can flush out those commitments,” he said.

“You only have to look at the number of domestic policies implemented in the lead up to the Copenhagen talks compared to previous years. If we hadn’t had that big meeting, which albeit failed, would there have been that flurry of domestic policies? It’s a two-way street,” he added.

UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres told a meeting of climate activists last week that while Obama’s plan might not go far enough to keep pace with what climate science recommends, it was an important step nonetheless to prepare the path for the 2015 climate summit in Paris.

“That is why it is very important over the next 18 months that there is enough political space opened in every country so that federal governments can actually take the decisions that they need to take,” she said.

David Waskow, director collective climate action objective at the World Resources Institute (WRI) said the US target agreed under the UN to reduce emissions by 17% compared to 2005 levels by 2020 is just an early, necessary step.

“Getting to 17% is not the solution in itself, but the commitment sets a minimum benchmark to guide and motivate policy,” he wrote on the WRI’s Insights blog.

“The point here is not to lionize or overly romanticize Copenhagen or the UN climate process more broadly. But we should learn lessons from the ways in which the negotiations, the Copenhagen commitments, and the results of those commitments have played such an important and additive role in spurring action in many countries.”

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