Obama Says Global Climate Deal Must Require Transparency

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By Dean Scott

Dec. 1 — President Barack Obama departed Paris Dec. 1 urging nearly 200 nations negotiating a global climate deal to ignore what he said are inevitable reports that another year of talks are doomed to failure and strive instead to complete the first truly global climate accord when the summit here ends Dec. 11.

“All of this will be hard,” Obama said, adding that getting the world community “to agree on anything is hard.”

“And I'm sure there will be moments over the next two weeks where progress seems stymied, and everyone rushes to write that we are doomed,” the president said at press conference at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “But I'm convinced that we're going to get big things done here,” he said, noting that more than 180 nations have put on the table pledges to address climate change that essentially will anchor the hoped-for Paris accord.

The president also urged negotiators at the United Nations summit to include two key components in the deal long urged by the U.S.—a way to strengthen the emissions reduction pledges periodically without reopening the entire agreement, and a “single” set of transparency and accountability mechanisms to ensure developed and developing nations alike make good on their pledges to cut emissions.

Obama, one of roughly 150 world leaders to travel to Paris for the Nov. 30 opening of the talks, sought to galvanize countries a day earlier in a speech that also hammered home the need for periodic strengthening of the deal and stringent verification requirements.

The president's trip to Paris included several bilateral meetings with other leaders, including small island nations, which yielded a new U.S. pledge of $30 million toward climate risk insurance initiatives in the Pacific, Central America and Africa. The Dec. 1 announcement is meant to help ramp up an effort announced by the seven leading industrialized economies in June to cover an additional 400 million of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people particularly exposed to climate impacts, during the next five years.

Pledges, Topping 180, Build Optimism

The president departed Paris amid optimism that a global deal could be within negotiators' grasp after nearly 20 years of UN talks that have seen progress come in fits and starts, including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which only required developed nations to take on legally binding emissions targets.

The deal now before negotiators at the 2015 talks, which are known as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP-21) to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is to be anchored instead by pledges nations put on the table voluntarily.

The two-term U.S. president, who hopes to make action on climate change a key part of his legacy after his push for cap-and-trade legislation died in the Senate five years ago, said the sheer volume of pledges now on the table is reason alone for optimism.

“If you had said to people as recently as two years ago that we'd have 180 countries showing up in Paris with pretty ambitious targets for carbon reduction, most people would have said you're crazy, that's a pipe dream,” the president said. “And yet here we are before the agreement is even signed, that's already happened,” Obama said.

A total of 157 pledges have been submitted to the UNFCCC as of Dec. 1, including a European Union pledge that covers 28 nations.

Steeper Emissions Cuts Needed?

Whether those pledges are ambitious enough is one of the larger debates at the Paris talks, in part because taken together they fall well short of the goal of keeping temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century compared to pre-industrial times to prevent the worst climate impacts.

The two largest emitters—China and the U.S.—jointly unveiled their pledges more than a year ago. Obama pledged to cut U.S. emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, using 2005 levels as a baseline.

But some analysts question whether the U.S. can get reductions that steep using Obama's regulatory approach, one that largely hinges on carbon pollution limits for power plants.

Even China's pledge to peak its emissions by 2030, and perhaps sooner, essentially would allow its emissions to increase for the next 15 years before they would presumably begin to decline. The rapidly developing nation also has pledged to decrease the carbon intensity of its economy by up to 65 percent, also by 2030.

There is little expectation nations will strengthen their pledges as part of the Paris agreement, which is why the U.S., European Union and other parties are pushing for a five-year review period when the pledges would be gradually strengthened after the pact enters into force in 2020. But the U.S. pledge also could be vulnerable if the next president opts to delay the climate rules or raises other obstacles to implementing them.

Asked if he feared his policies could be undercut, particularly by a Republican administration, Obama said he believes the growing international consensus on the need to address climate change will make it difficult for the next president to simply abandon U.S. efforts to cut its own emissions.

“The fact of the matter is there's a reason why you have the largest gathering of world leaders probably in human history here in Paris. Everybody else is taking climate change really seriously,” Obama said.

Outside of the U.S., the recognition of climate change as a global challenge “spans political parties” rather than dividing them, he said.

“You travel around Europe, and you talk to leaders of governments and the opposition, and they are arguing about a whole bunch of things,” the president said. But “one thing they're not arguing about is whether the science of climate change is real and whether or not we have to do something about it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Paris at dscott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com