U.S. Reduction in Power Plant Emissions Fuels Hope for Clinching 2015 Climate Deal

Coal Plant (Photo Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

June 3 President Barack Obama's plan to cut nearly one-third of power plant greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 should make the U.S. more ambitious in offering emissions cuts toward a 2015 global climate accord and help prod fast-developing nations to be bolder in making their own commitments, according to climate negotiators, members of Congress and other experts.

Todd Stern, the lead U.S. climate negotiator, said the proposal is “good news” for the international talks, “which depend upon the readiness of all countries, and particularly the major economies, to take strong, effective action.”

The Environmental Protection Agency's June 2 proposed regulation, which targets the largest source of U.S. emissions, “is powerful evidence of the United States' commitment to combat climate change,” Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.

Deep Cuts to Be Required.

Under the proposal, the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants would be required to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Obama already has pledged to cut U.S. emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, the year the new global climate deal is to enter into force. A slow-growing economy, more stringent fuel economy standards and fuel switching to lower-emitting natural gas in the power sector mean the U.S. today is on track, at least for now, to meet that pledge.

But the power plant rules are critically important, environmental groups say, for ensuring the U.S. meets its 17 percent-by-2020 pledge. The EPA limits also open the door for a more ambitious U.S. commitment to cutting its emissions after 2020, when the climate accord under negotiation is to go into effect.

“You can't get to that 17 percent [cut] without squeezing pretty hard on the power sector, which accounts for 40 percent” of U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, according to Jake Schmidt, the Natural Resources Defense Council's international climate policy director.

Any post-2020 U.S. pledge should be more ambitious, Schmidt said, but would likely require additional actions such as cuts in hydrofluorocarbons, a “super” pollutant that has a much more significant impact on warming the planet than carbon dioxide.

A 2025 Pledge Needed Advocates Say.

The Obama administration thus far has been mum on its post-2020 pledge; the U.S. and other large emitters have until early 2015 to put those reductions on the table toward a global deal that is to be sealed in Paris in December of that year.

While the NRDC and other advocates of climate action are still readying their own recommendations for the U.S. post-2020 actions, they are largely in agreement on at least one point: The U.S. should include a nearer-term target for 2025 in addition to a 2030 reduction pledge.

Putting forth only a 2030 pledge would suggest “we can wait until 2030” to ratchet down global emissions and would be “the wrong signal,” Schmidt said.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, emissions must be significantly reduced over the next decade or so to keep the global rise in temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to preindustrial levels.

Hoping to Prod India, China.

The U.S. hopes the June 2 unveiling of its power plant rules will prod China, India and other developing nations—which will emit the bulk of future emissions in the coming decades—to put more significant commitments on the table toward the 2015 climate deal.

“This shows that we, the United States, are serious. And it puts us in a much better position to talk to others about an international agreement,” Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) told Bloomberg BNA. As the largest historical emitter, the U.S. “can't preach temperance from a bar stool,” Markey said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that while the U.S. move puts pressure on China to sign on to the deal to be finalized in late 2015 in Paris, “they already have another motive to act, which is to address what they recognize is unhealthful air pollution.”

Those nations aren't expected to agree to actual emissions cuts anytime soon given that their economies are still developing. But Schmidt said the U.S. announcement could push China to accept a “peak year”—the year its emissions would peak and after which gradually decline.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said June 2 that he “wouldn't predict what specific actions” China or other nations might pledge to take in the 2015 climate deal as a result of the EPA's proposal.

But, he said, “it stands to reason that leadership by the United States, a demonstration of a seriousness of purpose here, will have at least potentially positive effects on other nations” as they look ahead to the final round of United Nations talks in Paris in 2015.

Some Say More Needed.

While most climate advocates hailed the Obama administration announcement, some environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, said it fell short of what is needed to confront rising global temperatures.

“While a step forward, this rule simply doesn't go far enough to put us on the right path,” Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said in a June 2 statement.

Similarly, the European Union's climate action commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, said the power plant regulations “send a positive signal” with negotiators 18 months away from the final round of talks in Paris.

“But for Paris to deliver what is needed to stay below a 2 C increase in global temperature, all countries, including the United States, must do even more,” Hedegaard said in a written statement.


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