WASHINGTON—The United States put forth its contribution Tuesday to a global climate treaty, relying entirely on a set of emission cuts ordered by President Barack Obama that may not survive beyond the end of his presidency.
Environmental groups and like-minded governments hailed the U.S. pledge as substantial and ambitious, and Obama’s aides waxed hopeful that the U.S. announcement would spur other countries to follow America’s lead. Yet with Obama’s actions at home facing serious legal challenges and intense political opposition, the Obama administration conceded that many foreign capitals are dubious the U.S. will live up to its commitment.
Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, said the pollution rules Obama is counting on to achieve the U.S. goal are on solid legal ground, pushing back on Republicans who have pledged to repeal them or stop them before they can take effect.
“Undoing the kind of regulations we are putting in place is something that is very hard to do,” said Stern. “Countries ask me about the solidity of what we’re doing all the time, and that’s exactly what I explain.”
To fulfill its pledge, the U.S. has until 2025 to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases 26 percent to 28 percent below the levels recorded in 2005. Obama first set that goal late last year as part of a joint climate agreement with China, then codified it Tuesday as the formal U.S. contribution to the climate treaty that nations are seeking to finalize by December, when leaders convene in Paris.
The United States is already part of the way there. Earlier in his presidency Obama set a goal to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020, and the boom in U.S. natural gas production has had the ancillary effect of curbing emissions from dirtier coal-fired power plants.
In its written pledge, known to climate negotiators as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, the U.S. did not offer an exact formula for how it would achieve the remaining reductions. Yet it pointed to an array of steps Obama has taken or is taking to curb emissions. Obama has ordered higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, methane limits for energy production, cuts in federal government emissions and unprecedented pollution rules for new and existing power plants.
Many of those steps have drawn the ire of some Democrats and almost all Republicans — not to mention the energy industry. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been urging U.S. states not to comply with Obama’s power plant rules, and argued that the U.S. could never meet Obama’s target even if those rules do survive.
“Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal,” McConnell said.
Although Tuesday marked the informal deadline for nations to relay their commitments to the United Nations, most countries blew through that deadline and will announce their pledges later in the year. So far the U.S., the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Mexico and Russia have put their pledges on the table, with most developing nations and heavy polluters like India and China expected to wait a few more months.
In its message to the U.N., the U.S. argued its pledge was both “ambitious” and “fair” — buzzwords in the long-running dispute about who bears the burden for fighting climate change: Wealthy, industrialized nations like the U.S. or poorer, developing countries like India. The developing countries have argued that since they have historically been responsible for less pollution, they hold less responsibility for taking the tough economic steps needed to curb future emissions.
The U.S. has sought to use its pledge and its diplomatic engagement on climate to ramp up the political pressure on other countries to make ambitious commitments of their own, in hopes of securing the most robust treaty possible.
Yet if McConnell and others succeed in thwarting parts of Obama’s climate agenda, it’s unclear how the U.S. could meet its goal. White House officials declined to say whether they had a Plan B. And since Obama has relied on executive authority to act on climate, the longevity of Obama’s actions are up to the discretion of his successor.
“Foreign capitals remain nervous given the episodic history of U.S. climate engagement,” said Paul Bledsoe, a climate adviser in the Clinton White House and a scholar at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He said not all legal experts agree with the Obama administration that a future Republican president would have a hard time reversing Obama’s actions.