US green groups: Paris is not Kyoto mark two

After courtroom setback for Obama’s signature climate initiative, NGOs say there is still momentum behind clean energy shift

Barack Obama addresses the COP21 talks in December 2015 (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

Barack Obama addresses the COP21 talks in December 2015 (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

By Alex Pashley

A surprise Supreme Court block to the US’ flagship climate policy has stoked worries December’s international Paris agreement may go the way of the doomed Kyoto Protocol. 

The justices’ decision to stall the Clean Power Plan fed fears the country may renege on its commitments under a Republican president, unravelling global cooperation to tackle global warming.

But this isn’t 2001 – the year President George W Bush notoriously refused to ratify Kyoto, overturning the Clinton administration – environmental groups said on Thursday.

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Fifteen years on, almost 200 countries have agreed to cut emissions, clean energy investments are surging and the American coal industry is in terminal decline.

“I don’t think this a similar situation to Kyoto,” Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists told a reporters’ briefing on Thursday.

“Climate change is now a geopolitical issue of the top order. A lot has changed…

“If you had the next president disavow and go rogue, there would be tremendous blowback,” added Meyer, citing the serious attention paid by the military and investors to the risks of an overheating planet.

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President Barack Obama’s administration anchored its negotiating position at the Paris climate summit on the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut power plant emissions by 32% by 2030 on 2005 levels.

Republicans, who say the president is overstepping his executive authority, cheered Tuesday’s 5-4 verdict to put the brakes on. Coal stocks in embattled miners Peabody rallied.

The judgment could derail hard-won international momentum if the US reneged on its commitments, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright warned.

But David Waskow, at the World Resources Institute disputed a potential domino effect.

He said: “Countries are paying attention to what happens with the Clean Power Plan and legal process, but at the same time, it’s quite clear countries are moving forward with their actions on climate change and to reduce emissions.”

Waskow cited clean energy investments hitting a record US$329 billion last year, and more than a hundred companies committing to slashing their carbon in line with the agreed 2C warming threshold. China is cutting carbon pollution to calm a political crisis.

And five states including Colorado, California and New York have vowed to push on with the rules.

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The US is still on course to sign the Paris agreement in a New York ceremony organised by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon this April, the White House has signalled.

And its emissions target of at least a 26% cut by 2025 on 2005 levels may be conservative, environmentalists argue. The US could reach the Clean Power Plan’s 2030 target 5 years in advance as coal power stations are retired in greater numbers.

The Obama administration is pursuing rules on methane from oil and gas, and slashing transport emissions, too.

“The fact is the United States’ climate commitments made in Paris continue to move full speed ahead as we work towards our 2017 goal of replacing half of US coal with clean energy,” said  John Coequyt at the Sierra Club.

“Are we disappointed? Sure. But the Paris Agreement is popular. The Paris Agreement has momentum, and the Paris Agreement is 100% on track.”

Read more on: UN climate talks | US