U.S. Sticks With 26-28 Percent by 2025 Cut but Gives Itself Wiggle Room to Negotiate

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By Dean Scott

March 31 — The U.S. opted not to budge from an earlier pledge to cut greenhouse gases 26 percent to 28 percent over the next decade in its March 31 formal submission toward a global climate accord, but it kept the door open to possibly agreeing to cuts closer to the higher end of that range at the Paris climate summit in December.

The U.S. in a “cover note” accompanying its submission to the United Nations body overseeing the talks promised its “best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%” by 2025 from 2005 levels, and White House senior advisor Brian Deese echoed the same phrase to reporters in a press call touting the formal pledge submission.

The U.S. “will make best efforts to achieve the upper end” of the 26 percent to 28 percent range, Deese said.

The formal U.S. submission to the UN climate secretariat was essentially unchanged from what President Barack Obama announced alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping in November. 

But Obama administration officials said the formal submission, made more than eight months ahead of the Paris summit, showed the U.S. is poised to lead in the negotiations.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. has already cuts its carbon pollution “more than any other country over the last several years” and touted its pledge as ambitious but achievable.

U.S. Pledge Ambitious Enough?

But some environmental groups said they will continue to push the U.S. for deeper reductions.

They noted that the U.S. offer by most measures is far more modest than the European Union’s pledge to cut emissions 40 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels. If the U.S. used the same 1990 baseline instead of 2005, for example, its target would equate to just a 14 percent to 16 percent U.S. reduction by 2025, according to Climate Action Network Europe.

But CAN Europe said that at least by one measure, the U.S. offer is actually more ambitious going forward than the EU’s: The European Union’s pledge translates to an annual emissions cut of 1.5 percent through 2030, the group said, while the U.S. pledge would cut emissions 2 percent a year.

The U.S. submission claims a slightly higher annual reduction, stating that a 26 percent to 28 percent cut by 2025 would double the current pace of annual emissions reductions to between 2.3 percent and 2.8 percent per year.

Pledge Not `Easily Undone.’

Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, told reporters on a press call that he has repeatedly assured negotiators from developed and developing countries alike that the U.S. pledge can't be “easily undone” by congressional opponents or legal challenges.

“Countries ask me about the solidity of what we are doing all the time, and that is exactly what I have explained,” Stern said March 31, adding that President Obama’s domestic climate policies are well-grounded in existing laws such as the Clean Air Act, as well as more stringent appliance and vehicle efficiency standards.

“The undoing of the kinds of regulation we are putting in place is tough to do,” Stern said.

But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who along with many Republicans argues that any Paris deal needs congressional approval, said the U.S. submission was more evidence of Obama’s “extremist global warming agenda” and warned it “will not see the light of day with the 114th Congress.”

The pledge puts the U.S. on a path to curb its emissions 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels, Stern said, although he stressed that the U.S. is making no commitment toward that mid-century reduction in negotiations toward the Paris accord.

Seven Greenhouse Gases Covered 

The formal U.S. submission pledges reduction in all significant emissions: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride.

The climate accord to be reached in Paris is expected to be less a binding treaty and more a hybrid agreement with binding and nonbinding elements, with each nation putting forth its own pledged actions to cut emissions. Those pledges would be anchored in each country's own domestic energy and climate laws.

The pledges themselves aren't expected to be binding, but other components—such as how those actions would be measured and verified—could be. The accord would enter into force in 2020.

Pledges Slower Than Expected 

With its March 31 submission, the U.S. did make good on a promise it made at the 2013 climate summit in Warsaw, Poland: to put its offer on the table relatively early in 2015 to encourage other emitters, particularly large ones, to follow suit.

An agreement reached in Warsaw called on nations “ready to do so”—presumably developed countries but also some larger emitting developing nations—to unveil their pledges in the first quarter of this year to give negotiators ample time to review them ahead of the Nov. 30-Dec. 11 Paris summit.

But only six of the more than 190 parties negotiating the climate accord have put submissions on the table as the first quarter of the year comes to a close: the U.S., Switzerland, Norway, Mexico, the European Union, and Russia, which like the U.S. also submitted its pledge March 31.

China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, has already announced its pledge to peak its emissions by 2030, and perhaps sooner, and ratchet up its use of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of the nation's energy mix by 2030. But it has not formally submitted that offer to the UN body, and some find the slow pace of submissions worrisome.

Pace Slower Than Expected 

The United Nations climate secretariat is supposed to have all of the combined pledges, known in climate negotiating parlance as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), from developed and developing nations by Nov. 1, noted Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ director of policy and strategy.

“Obviously back in Warsaw there was an expectation that most, if not all, developed countries would be putting forward their INDCs by this point,” Meyer told Bloomberg BNA. “That is a bit of a disappointment,” he said, particularly the absence of pledges from industrialized countries such as Canada, Australia, and Japan.

A White House official sounded a more optimistic note, pointing out that the half-dozen formal submissions and China’s pledge last year account for 60 percent of global emissions.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com