Obama stakes claim to Paris climate legacy

US president is pulling out all the stops for a global pact as quiver of climate policies unveiled at home

(Credit: White House photo/ Pete Souza)

(Credit: White House photo/ Pete Souza)

By Alex Pashley

As UN talks in Paris loom, the White House is driving a major diplomatic push to boost chances of an international agreement in December.

Almost 200 nations are expected to sign a carbon-cutting pact which has eluded negotiators for over two decades.

The Obama administration has thrown its weight behind a robust – if not legally binding – outcome, putting climate at the forefront of its message.

It marks a rupture with the Bush era and its refusal to adopt binding emissions cuts under the Kyoto treaty that Paris will supersede.

The flagship policy from the world’s second largest carbon polluter landed just over two weeks ago. The Clean Power Plan promised curbs to power plant emissions and a boost to clean energy generation.

And on Tuesday, a rule to tackle methane emissions from oil and gas drilling added to the bevy of regulations the Environmental Protection Agency has set under the Clean Air Act of 1990.

Methane accounts for just 9% of American greenhouse gas emissions, but they have a powerful warming effect 84 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

The regulations, which require companies to install technologies to limit the by-product of gas and natural gas wells, would have health benefits of $460-550 million, officials said, and cost industry $320-420m.

David Doniger, climate policy director at the National Resources Defense Council called the rule a “good start,” but added the regulator needed to set up “methane leakage standards for existing oil and gas operations nationwide,” AP reported.

The wider Clean Power Plan aims for emissions cuts of 32% from existing coal and gas-fired power plants, sets targets for renewables’ share in America’s energy mix and fuel standards for trucks.

The EPA also has aviation emissions in its sights. In June it launched an “endangerment finding” on the most-polluting unregulated sector, on public health grounds.

Events to come

As Paris nears, president Barack Obama will hold high-profile events and meetings on climate change.

This month, he will speak in Alaska to rally against a melting Arctic. Private audiences with Pope Francis and opposite number China’s Xi Jinping in September offer space to converge positions.

“I have never seen such a concerted diplomatic effort that is joined up, coordinated from the president downwards,” veteran observer of UN talks and founder of Track 0, Farhana Yamin told RTCC at the recording of a new podcast, live from Monday.

The US has committed to slash CO2 by at least 26% by 2025 from 2005 levels as its part of an international agreement to cap warming to 2C. Almost 200 nations are set to strike a deal in December.

Obama’s strategy has put the country “basically in charge of negotiations,” Yamin said.

“Every single leader he meets, every single leader John Kerry meets, they talk about climate change and bring that up. Overseas and at home he has spent his political capital on his climate legacy.”

Environmentalists have celebrated the climate action plan, while brown energy advocates have sworn lawsuits.

“What we’re seeing is a president that is prioritising the climate issue,” said Jennifer Morgan of Washington DC think tank WRI.

Cold winds of change

At the Arctic meet, dubbed GLACIER (Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience), foreign ministers from China, India and Germany will attend.

The event is the same week as the latest round of UN talks in Bonn.

According to a State Department note, the meeting will focus on regional and international solutions to global warming, as well as boost global awareness of Arctic melt.

Obama has taken hits from Donald Trump over the looming decision to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and from within his party on the administration’s approval of Shell high risk Arctic drilling venture.

These fossil fuel ventures are at odds with his climate agenda, environmentalists say.

In a tweet, Democrat presidential challenger Hillary Clinton said drilling wasn’t “worth the risk”.

“I think the very great difficulties that Shell encountered the last time they tried to do that should be a red flag for anybody,” she told reporters at an event in Nevada.

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