Obama’s new carbon cutting plans ‘critical’ to UN climate talks

Yvo de Boer says tough new legislation will send global message that US is serious about 2015 Paris deal

(Pic: White House/Flickr)

(Pic: White House/Flickr)

By Ed King

Barack Obama’s plan to slash carbon pollution from US power plants is a “critical moment” along the path towards a global greenhouse gas cutting deal, says the UN’s former chief climate official.

On Monday the US President is expected to outline how new laws will reduce carbon emissions from US coal-fired power plants by up to 20%.

Reports suggest these could be the toughest ever climate legislation proposed in the US, and will require Obama to use all of his executive powers to ensure they are enforced.

“I think it is a critical moment,” Yvo de Boer told RTCC. “In the run-up to Copenhagen there were hopes the Senate would pass laws on climate and energy – that failed.

“This I supposed is the Obama administration coming up for air and having a second go at this.”

Copenhagen was the 2009 venue for the last major global summit aimed at addressing climate change.

Countries failed to agree on a definitive path forward there, but there are hopes they will do so at a 2015 UN conference scheduled to be held in Paris next December.

Observers are watching the moves of the US and China closely to see if they will be able to make serious emission cuts.

The world’s two largest carbon polluters are currently locked in high level talks over what cuts their economies could accept. Many see this week’s decision by China to scrap six million polluting cars as evidence it is committed to cleaning up its act.

And De Boer stresses that if both countries can come to an understanding, then a deal to limit warming below the 2C ceiling agreed by countries could be on.

Mixed precedents

The last attempt to enforce tough nationwide carbon cuts in the US foundered in 2010, due to stuff opposition from lawmakers in Congress. The new plans will avoid this by using Presidential powers.

US power plants release about 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year, around 40% of the country’s total emissions.

New proposals affecting power plants would be the most significant step yet in meeting the US goal of cutting CO2 17% on 2005 levels by 2020.

They could also allow the US to issue a new and more ambitious set of targets for 2025 or 2030 ahead of the Paris conference, a move that could encourage China to make similar a pledge.

The US and China are engaged in intensive diplomacy over both countries' 2015 carbon targets (Pic: White House)

The US and China are engaged in intensive diplomacy over both countries’ 2015 carbon targets (Pic: White House)

De Boer, now head of the South Korea-based Global Green Growth Initiative, says this could unlock the door for other countries to follow, and reserves particular praise for US Secretary of State John Kerry, who he credits for driving the country’s climate policy.

“I remember in the run-up to Copenhagen how glaring absent Hilary Clinton was as Secretary of State in the whole climate debate,” he says.

“John Kerry is someone who understands the climate and energy intimately – who has even suffered a number of COPs [annual UN conferences]…and he knows what he is talking about. His personal engagement is incredibly important…and the fact he is engaging China on substance.”

Public acceptance

According to researchers at Yale University, 78% of Americans support the idea of regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

But  Monday’s announcement is likely to be met with a barrage of criticism from heavy industry and the Republican party, angry that the Congress it dominates is being bypassed.

On Wednesday this week the US Chamber of Commerce – a conservative dominated organisation – released an economic analysis warning new regulations could cost $50 billion a year.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an influential Washington NGO, will shortly issue its own study, which will likely argue the laws will yield $28 billion to $63 billion in health and environmental benefits.

It says power plant restrictions can eliminate 470 to 700 million tonnes of carbon pollution by 2020 compared to 2012 levels, “equivalent to the emissions from 95 to 130 million autos”.

Market scrutiny

The new legislation, which will be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act, will likely allow states to choose how they cut pollution levels, perhaps using a system modelled on cap-and-trade.

The NRDC, which has worked closely with the US Environmental Protection Agency, also proposes allowing energy efficiency measures to be counted when states reveal how they will comply with the laws.

Energy investors are watching US developments closely.  The value of pure play US coal companies has dropped sharply in the past few years. Tough new laws could conceivably tip these businesses over the edge.

Craig Mackenzie, Head of Sustainability at Scottish Widows Investment Partnership told RTCC ambitious rules would demonstrate Obama is finally serious about addressing climate change.

“It would send a pretty powerful signal to the world as it prepares for Paris that the US can actually do stuff and make ambitious commitments, in a way people have written off, and I think that could be quite powerful – part as China seems strongly minded to do aggressive things on coal.”

2015 talks

Later next week UN climate envoys and some ministers gather in Bonn for the latest round of negotiations on the Paris deal.

Top of the agenda is a draft text for the proposed UN agreement, together with discussion on funding clean energy projects in the developing world.

A strong US message could encourage countries like India, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, to take tougher steps to address its carbon footprint, while also delivering electricity to its millions of citizens below the poverty line.

“India needs confidence that all countries like the US are moving forward and pulling their weight, and that’s why Paris is so important,” says De Boer.

He adds the UN Secretary General’s climate leaders’ summit in September will be important to build confidence between the leaders of the US, China, India and other major polluters.

Bar those in climate vulnerable nations, few heads of state have been engaged in climate politics since Copenhagen, a situation De Boer says will need to change fairly urgently.

“I would hope business leaders as providers of finance, technology and solutions would at the Ban Ki-moon summit say if you politicians get your act together – this is what we can deliver.

“I’d also hope there is a clear statement on the road to Paris from those political leaders to say we are committed to defining a solution that measures up, and will take our own responsibility in being held accountable.”

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