What to watch for in U.S. climate plan for Paris

by Reuters
Monday, 9 March 2015 23:21 GMT

A United States flag is seen through a rain-soaked window in the snow-covered Suffolk County town of Dix Hills, New York, Jan. 27, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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So far only EU and Switzerland have released plans, most countries not expected to do so until summer

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) - Later this month, the Obama administration will unveil how it plans to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels within a decade, the core of the negotiating position it will take to global climate talks Paris this December.

While the broad outlines of the U.S. position are known, there is great interest in its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC), climate diplomats' term for each country's domestic program to achieve its Paris targets.

So far only the EU and Switzerland have released plans. Most countries - including China and India - are not expected to do so until the summer. The Obama administration has suggested that showing its hand early could pressure other major emitters to be comprehensive in their own INDCs.

"The administration aims to use its domestic climate action to leverage global action," said Pete Ogden, director of international climate policy at the Center for American Progress and a former chief of staff to U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern.

But to do so, the Obama administration will need to address some key questions:

* Will the U.S. move closer to a legally binding treaty?

The EU and some developing countries insist that any deal in Paris be "legally binding" to ensure parties do not backslide on their promises. While the Obama administration wants a deal beholden to national laws and regulations, the Republican-held Congress has made its hostility to an internationally binding treaty clear. http://reut.rs/ZsN0Xg

Kate Larsen, a former U.S. climate negotiator and director at the Rhodium Group, said the United States is unlikely to show a move toward the EU position. "My gut is that it will be heavily caveated with legal language about not pre-judging the Paris outcome and the legal nature of the commitment," she said.

* Can U.S. commitments outlast Obama's presidency?

The Environmental Protection Agency has relied on the existing Clean Air Act as the main tool to regulate vehicles, utilities and industry, and political opponents are vowing to gut those regulations. http://reut.rs/1KNo2YT

Other countries wonder whether inevitable litigation, Republican hostility and the end of Obama's second term mean U.S. commitments could be short-lived.

Jennifer Morgan, the World Resources Institute's climate program director, said the administration may try to highlight the Clean Air Act's durability. "The U.S. could explain a bit of the history of the CAA and the role it's played in U.S. modern environmental history. It's a very stable regulation," she said, adding that decades of challenges failed to roll it back.

* How will the INDC account for forest protection and land use?

One uncertainty about the U.S. plan is how it will account for carbon dioxide emitted and stored by forests, and land-use. The issue is controversial because some argue that including forest and land management in climate policies detracts from emissions cuts from other sectors such as transportation and buildings. The EU's INDC deferred the issue to a technical study.

"It will be interesting to see what the U.S. says about accounting for this sector," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, adding that the United States has made a wide range of carbon sequestration and emissions forecasts from the sector.

* So will there be any surprises?

The United States is constrained in detailing how much each proposal will contribute to the overall target because some regulations have not yet been finalized and may face lawsuits. "The U.S. will probably want to preserve some flexibility as to how the target is reached since there are so many factors that cannot be precisely controlled," said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

The test then will be whether the American INDC produces enough detail to push the Chinas and Indias of the world to be comprehensive in their own national plans. (Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bruce Wallace and Steve Orlofsky)

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