Ambitious US emissions pledge can lead to global climate agreement

The Obama administration’s recent policies to combat climate change, including draft EPA regulations to limit emissions from existing power plants released last month, have put the U.S in its strongest-ever domestic position on the issue.

These efforts set the stage for America to make an ambitious new international emissions commitment, which in turn will provide the U.S. the moral authority to press hard for an international climate agreement next year, without which 97 percent of scientists say we risk runaway climate change impacts around the world.   

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American emissions have now fallen to their lowest level in 20 years, through a combination of effective policies and market changes, and are on pace to meet the commitment President Obama made in 2009 to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. 

When Obama first announced this goal, skeptics of climate action like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said such policies would be economically ruinous and “job-killing.”  Indeed, critics on both right and left contended that Obama’s pledge was not supported by policy proposals, and could not be achieved.  Yet here we are five years later, right on track.

Now the U.S. and other major emitting nations are formulating targets for the period of 2020 to 2030.  Due next March, these commitments will form the basis for U.N. negotiations culminating in Paris in December 2015, where world leaders hope to gain emissions cuts deep enough to keep global temperature increases below levels a series of major reports by thousands of leading scientists have found could risk catastrophic climate impacts.

In deriving the U.S. climate pledge, administration officials might be tempted to add up all the valuable policy efforts the administration and states have undertaken, basing the commitment on such a “tally of current policy” approach.   But history suggests such a method would substantially underestimate the level of emissions reductions long-term policies and the U.S. economy will produce.  Instead, the administration should base its emissions commitment primarily on the broader, accelerating trend of lower emissions during the last 20 years, since efforts to cut U.S. emissions began.  

Using historic trends makes sense for a number of reasons.  For one thing, we cannot reliably predict the exact climate policies that will be in place in 2020, let alone 2030.  We have no idea which political party will be in power, whether climate change impacts may drive more aggressive policy, whether lawmakers will embrace carbon pricing, when the GOP might abandon its climate skepticism, and which new technologies and market conditions will emerge.  But we can learn from the trends of the last two decades.  And they all point in the same direction, toward an ever more energy-efficient economy and greater ability to cut emissions in absolute terms and relative to economic growth.

As the U.S. Energy Information Agency has documented, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have declined in 5 of the last 8 years, and are about 12 percent below their 2007 peak.  For example, in 2012, U.S. GDP rose by 2.8 percent, but energy consumption fell by 2.4 percent and emissions were almost 4 percent lower than the previous year.  These trends should accelerate, as investments in new technologies through the Obama stimulus and new federal regulations begin to bear fruit, suggesting the U.S. commitment should if anything be significantly more ambitious than historic trends.

The formulation of a U.S. climate pledge to take effect five years hence may seem an arcane exercise, unlikely to affect actual events.   In fact, it may be among the most important actions the U.S. takes. 

First, it will form the level of ambition for future Administrations and Congresses, since once the U.S. makes a pledge, it will be under withering diplomatic pressure to meet its commitment, a process that will only intensify as climate change impacts worsen, even under a GOP Administration.  Second, an aggressive U.S. pledge will also put pressure on other nations, especially China, whose emissions are almost double ours, to make strong emissions pledges, and therefore largely determine whether the world can finally begin to significantly reduce global emissions. 

Finally, setting an ambitious emissions reduction standard will validate our domestic climate leadership, and signal to the American people and the world that the U.S. can still do great things, much as President Kennedy’s call for a moon landing did in the 1960s, when the Cold War was the issue of global concern. Just this month, no less than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that domestic climate actions have put the U.S. in a strong position to drive international progress.

However, the U.S. pledge should not been seen as the basis for a formal treaty, as administration officials have made crystal clear to the European Union and others.  Senate ratification will not be needed.   The U.S. emissions pledge is just that—not legally binding -- but morally and politically profound and influential.

Policymakers in the State Department and White House are formulating the method and rationale for a U.S. climate commitment now.  Industry, Congress and concerned citizens should let them know that now is the time to reawaken America’s grand ambition and role in the world, by staking out a leadership position in meeting the climate challenge where it must ultimately be addressed, at the global level.

Bledsoe is a senior fellow on energy and society at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and former communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.