President Obama is hoping to complete two more international agreements to fight global warming in the coming months, shoring up his climate change legacy.
His landmark Paris agreement is certain to go down as one of the most consequential — and controversial — global pacts of Obama’s presidency. Now, he's also pushing world leaders to agree to cut down on greenhouse gases from refrigeration and from commercial aircraft.
That would help seal Obama’s legacy of securing sweeping agreements with world leaders to fight climate change as part of his second-term global warming agenda.
But the deals to reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and aircraft emissions also add to Obama’s reputation for making major policy decisions through unilateral action, and are sparking new anger from Republican critics.
Like the Paris agreement, both climate actions are being negotiated under existing treaties, and would not likely require the two-thirds votes in the Senate that the Constitution mandates for treaties.
The HFC and aircraft agreements target specific sources of earth-warming greenhouse gases, but each deal could put a significant dent into climate change in its own way.
“The Paris agreement establishes a durable framework for country actions addressing climate change in a comprehensive fashion, whereas these other two agreements deal with discrete slices of the problem,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
“The president has significant powers to fashion agreements with other countries, and has used those vigorously to strengthen the international response to climate change."
Obama previewed the cooperative agreements in 2013, when he rolled out his Climate Action Plan to guide his second-term climate agenda. International pacts were a key piece of the agenda.
To environmentalists and Obama’s supporters, significant progress on HFCs and aircraft emissions would wrap up a strong climate legacy.
“He really has made climate change one of the top policy priorities of his second term, and he has accomplished a remarkable amount,” said Paul Bledsoe, a consultant and former climate change aide in President Clinton’s White House. “I think Obama will be looked at as the key turning point figure in American climate protection.”
HFCs are used in refrigeration and air conditioning, and came into use over the last two decades to replace ozone-depleting substances following the Montreal Protocol ozone treaty.
But HFCs are potent greenhouse gases, and now world leaders are planning to amend the treaty at an October meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, and phase down their use.
A 2013 study estimated that a successful reducing HFCs could avoid 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100. That would be a significant chunk of the 2-degree warming limit scientists believe would stop the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
A few weeks before the Rwanda meeting, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations body responsible for regulating commercial aviation, will meet in Montreal. Representatives are likely to approve an international greenhouse gas emissions market for airlines. It would complement a set of standards for newly built aircraft that ICAO is also set to approve.
Commercial airplanes account for just under 2 percent of worldwide emissions, but it's the fastest-growing sector in terms of emissions.
“So achieving zero net emissions growth post-2020 will put a significant dent in the problem,” Diringer said.
Implementing the HFC standards and the aircraft emissions limits domestically would require new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Reflecting his strategy with the Paris agreement, Obama and his deputies have used nearly every diplomatic meeting to push world leaders — especially the biggest countries — to come on board with both the HFC and aircraft agreements.
At the recent G20 summit, Obama’s joint statement with Chinese President Xi Jinping committed both countries to seek strong outcomes for the climate negotiations. And Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryClimate policies propel a growing dysfunction of Western democracies Kerry calls out countries that need to 'step up' on climate change Those on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution MORE made a point to get Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s buy-in on HFCs at a late August meeting.
But conservatives see the push as another example of Obama moving toward major new policies without congressional approval.
“It compounds our concerns with the trouble of executive policymaking absent any input from the Senate,” said William Yeatman, a fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“As a body of work, that’s troubling. That’s a lot of policy,” he said, referring collectively to the two pacts and the Paris agreement.
But unlike many of Obama’s regulatory actions, the major domestic industries affected by the emissions plans are supportive of the administration’s work.
Lobbying groups are working alongside the administration and the international bodies to make sure that the agreements are effective, but also not too harmful to their industries.
“Industry has a desire for certainty. Whether it is certainty in the good, certainty in the so-so or certainty in the bad, it’s still certainty,” said Francis Dietz, spokesman for the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute.
“It helps in planning, it helps in allocating research and developing dollars, it helps in building or remodeling factories.”
Companies would replace HFCs with more environmentally friendly chemicals, which the EPA has already started to approve.
For airlines, the goal in working with the administration is to get a worldwide system for a global industry.
“U.S. airlines are strong supporters of a global sectoral approach to aviation climate change policy under ICAO,” said Vaughn Jennings, spokesman for Airlines For America.
“As aviation is a global industry, with airlines operating internationally and aircraft manufacturers selling their aircraft in international markets, it is critical that aircraft emissions standards be set at the international level and not imposed unilaterally by one country or set of countries,” he said.