What President Obama's Climate Action Plan means for international efforts on climate change

In a powerful speech earlier today, President Obama announced a comprehensive, common-sense set of steps that the Administration is taking to address climate change by cutting carbon pollution, preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to address global climate change. It’s worth taking a look at what the President’s speech, and the Climate Action Plan he unveiled today, might mean in the international arena.

President Obama's new Climate Action Plan emphasizes the U.S. role in global efforts to stop climate change.

Much of the plan concerns what the U.S. – the world’s second-largest emitter – can do to reduce emissions at home. A major component is the President’s decision to direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move ahead with carbon pollution standards for existing power plants, which account for about 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Putting in place such standards – using authority the Administration already has under the Clean Air Act – is the single most important step the U.S. can take to reduce carbon emissions.

More broadly, the President laid out a whole-of-government approach that includes actions from the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Interior, Transportation, and other agencies across the federal government. (EDF President Fred Krupp provides an overview of the plan and his reactions to it on our EDF Voices blog.)

But there is also a welcome emphasis on the U.S. role in global efforts to address climate change, through measures that include reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), expanding clean energy use, mobilizing climate finance and leading efforts to address climate change through international negotiations.

The President’s plan highlights the recent agreement between the U.S. and China to work together in phasing down the consumption and production of HFCs – industrial gases used in applications such as refrigeration and cooling that are thousands of times more potent warmers than carbon dioxide on a pound-for-pound basis. And the plan points to the critical importance of helping vulnerable countries adapt to a changing climate, pledging to strengthen resilience to climate change around the world.

Comprehensive climate action plan includes efforts on international aviation emissions and coal-fired power plants around the world

Among the many international issues covered by the plan – many describing work that is already underway – two specific commitments stand out as worth focusing on in the coming months.

1) First, the Climate Action Plan recognizes the importance of addressing global warming pollution from international air travel, highlighting that the Administration is “working towards agreement to develop a comprehensive global approach” in the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO. Progress on aviation is important not only because of the emissions involved (if global aviation were a country, it would rank in the world’s top ten largest emitters) but also because it represents an area where the international community could make headway in the near term. An agreement in ICAO at its upcoming meeting in September would give a valuable boost to international efforts more broadly, simply by demonstrating that agreement in multilateral forums is possible.

Of course, “working toward agreement” is pretty broad. But it seems reasonable to expect the Administration to be at least as ambitious as the airline industry itself. Earlier this month, the International Air Transport Association called for ICAO to agree on a global market-based measure to cap emissions from international aviation, and put forward principles to help governments reach that agreement.

ICAO should commit, this year, to develop such a detailed approach over the next three years and formally adopt it at the next ICAO Assembly in 2016. Such an ICAO agreement won’t happen without visible and assertive U.S. backing, however. That’s why it was so welcome to see international aviation mentioned in the action plan – and why we (and the rest of the environmental community) will be watching the Administration’s actions with interest over the next few months, and holding the Administration to its commitment to lead.

2) Second, the plan announces a new and stronger commitment to end financing for new coal-fired power plants around the world. The President “calls for an end to U.S. government support for public financing of new coal plants overseas,” with narrow exceptions for the world’s poorest countries (in cases where no other economically feasible alternative exists) or coal plants that capture and store their carbon emissions. This pledge appears to go considerably beyond the guidelines for coal-plant financing by multilateral development banks that the U.S. Treasury released in 2009, both by setting a higher bar for what coal plants would still be allowed and by covering all U.S. government support (including financing from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Ex-Im Bank, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and USAID).

As importantly, the plan commits the Administration to “work actively to secure the agreement of other countries and multilateral development banks to adopt similar policies as soon as possible.” That sort of leadership will be critical, since past attempts to limit financing of new coal plants by multilateral development banks have run into significant opposition. A bright-line position from the U.S. government could be crucial in providing clarity on the issue and helping to push the world away from coal.

Ultimately, the international impact of the President’s speech and Climate Action Plan will depend on the emissions reductions that result. Carried out ambitiously, the steps announced yesterday could help put the United States on the path to cut greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 – meeting the target that the U.S. inscribed in the Copenhagen Accord in 2009.

Making good on that pledge, even in the face of intransigence by the U.S. Congress, would provide a welcome sign of renewed U.S. leadership. Today’s climate plan is an important step in the right direction.

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