US: Time to get creative on a climate change deal

Washington calls for initial five-year commitment period, promises to deliver carbon cuts plan by March 2015


By Ed King

The US has outlined its vision of how a global climate agreement could work, and confirmed it is on track to reveal its proposed carbon cuts by March 2015.

It wants countries to offer an initial five-year plan for greenhouse gas cuts, from 2020-2025. That proposal is contested by the EU, which wants 10 years.

“If the end date were 2030, which some have suggested, parties might be unsure about how ambitious they could be,” the US argues in a document sent to the UN.

“We might end up locking in ambition at a lower level than would have been possible had we first chosen 2025 and then made new contributions for 2030.”

The timing of the 13-page submission from the State Department is significant, arriving five days before UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon hosts a heads of state climate summit in New York.

Last December at a summit in Warsaw leading economies committed to revealing their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) by the first quarter of next year.

In a sign the US does not see this deadline as fixed, it says it wants “as many submissions as possible” by a June UN meeting which will take place in Bonn.

“We do not see a need to develop a highly structured or engineered process,” it adds, suggesting that analysis of pledges does not have to solely take place at UN gatherings.

Analysis: What would a fair UN climate change deal look like? 

Once a review of these INDCs has taken place, the US wants all 194 parties to the UN to reveal their final proposals at the same time, ahead of a Paris summit in December where the agreement is set to be finalised.

The EU is currently in the middle of negotiations between its 28 member states on a carbon emissions reduction target up to 2030, likely to be 40%.

It’s unclear what figures the US could submit, although in 2009 it indicated it was on a pathway for a 30% reduction in 2025 and a 42% reduction in 2030.

The country’s 2020 target is a 17% emissions cut on 2005 levels. New power plant carbon standards outlined by President Barack Obama in June could see emissions from energy drop 30% by 2030 on 2005 levels.

Today Zou Ji, an official closely linked with China’s National Development and Reform Commission, which runs climate policy, said the country was committed to releasing an INDC next year.

“We have been working very very hard from day to night as a research think-tank to provide technical support to that,” he told reporters in a conference call.

But in a sign of continued tensions between developed and developing countries, the US warns against envoys trying to insert references to rich and poor countries into a final negotiating text.

Specifically it says calls for a focus on historic emissions, for which the US, UK and parts of Europe are largely culpable, are not in the original 1992 text formalising the goals of the UN climate convention and should not be added into a 2015 agreement.

“Inclusion of ‘historic responsibility’ would be an approach that re-writes or re-interprets the Convention,” the US says.

Liz Gallagher, head of international climate policy at thinktank E3G said the US position was predictable but a sign of how seriously the administration is now taking a possible Paris agreement.

“Its focus on shorter commitment periods as a means to consistently return to the table and ratchet up ambition is helpful,” she said.

“But this will only work if the agreement explicitly spells out a more concrete long-term goal, along the lines of phasing out fossil fuels by 2050.  Without a long-term tangible target, there will be no benchmark to assess the adequacy of their five year carbon budgets.”

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