White House Announces Big Climate Change Goals Ahead of Paris Summit

The U.S. pledges to accelerate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the hopes of prodding other countries to reach a binding, global accord later this year.


The United States has outlined its plan to trim greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, setting the stage for a huge international climate change conference in Paris later this year that’s meant to craft a workable, global effort to limit the negative effects of rising temperatures.

The Obama administration plan, submitted to the United Nations on Tuesday, will use existing laws and regulations to keep curbing carbon emissions over the next decade, U.S. officials said. It skirts the need for new approvals from a Republican-controlled Congress that is deeply skeptical of climate change and efforts to rein in emissions.

The plan, which follows similar pronouncements from the European Union, China, Mexico, and a handful of other countries, essentially codifies informal targets first set out by President Barack Obama in a visit to Beijing last November. All countries were asked to submit their climate change targets to the U.N. by the end of March to lay the groundwork for negotiations in Paris.

“We think that this is an economically sound, ambitious, but achievable goal,” said Brian Deese, climate advisor to the president, in a conference call.

Since 1992, the world has sought to figure out how to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, which are the major contributor to climate change. Most of the reductions so far have come from rich countries in Europe and North America; Asia, by contrast, has seen its emissions skyrocket in recent decades, thanks to breakneck economic growth. This year, for the first time, negotiators in Paris hope to cobble together an agreement that would require both developed and developing countries to commit to reducing emissions.

U.S. officials hope the 2025 target of reductions of between 26 and 28 percent will push other countries to make ambitious pledges ahead of the Paris summit. China, for its part, has already said that it hopes to see its carbon emissions peak around 2030, which would mark a milestone for the world’s biggest carbon polluter. Europe has already committed to a 40 percent cut in emissions by 2030. Mexico just pledged that its emissions would peak around 2026.

It “puts the U.S. in a leadership position in climate negotiations,” by putting the country on a path to an eventual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 80 percent by 2050, Todd Stern, the U.S. State Department’s climate change envoy, said in the same conference call.

“The timing is critically important, making clear that the U.S. intends to act at this early stage, and it will help push other countries into putting their plans on the table as well,” said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

But a couple of big questions remain. It is unclear whether existing policies designed to reduce U.S. emissions — such as rules that limit the emissions from new and existing power plants — will last beyond the Obama administration. Those power-plant rules face a spate of legal challenges, as well as concerted pushback from Republican congressional leadership.

At the same time, it remains to be seen just how ambitious other countries will be in Paris, especially the developing countries that have been the biggest carbon polluters in recent years. China has said that it aspires to stop the growth in carbon emissions within 15 years, and is working to rejig its economy to become less energy-intensive. Yet the need for continued economic growth, and a continued reliance on fossil fuels like coal, will keep Chinese emissions growing until then. Other developing countries with a pressing need for economic development, such as India, also have been reluctant to commit to steep cuts while they are still trying to promote economic growth. Russia submitted its own climate plans shortly after the United States, yet they are much less ambitious.

And even if climate negotiators do reach an accord at the end of this year, the commitments need to be backed up by some sort of accountability, environmental advocates said.

“Beyond a new set of national targets, the Paris agreement needs mechanisms holding countries accountable for their promises,” said Bob Perciasepe, former deputy head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and now president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an environmental nonprofit, in a statement.

Photo credit: CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

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