STANFORD, Calif.—It may have taken a while to start, but on climate change the United States is first walking the talk.
The Obama administration’s moves to curb domestic emissions of greenhouse gases will provide credibility as it pursues international agreement on the issue either globally or with only a few key countries, the acting chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Michael Boots, said at Stanford University’s Silicon Valley Energy Summit.
"Frankly, the world got used to the United States not being a leader on the climate issue," said Boots. "The president feels very, very strongly that we need to do as much as we can on the domestic front to send a strong signal before we ask others to do the same."
In early June, the Environmental Protection Agency took its boldest step yet on climate change by announcing plans to cut emissions of carbon dioxide from the country’s fleet of coal-fired power plants, which generate about 40 percent of U.S. electricity.
"We needed what the EPA did to be a base for some discussions heading to Paris in 2015," said Boots, adding that the administration feels it is on a good trajectory leading up to those global negotiations.
The next annual U.N. Climate Change Conference will be held in Peru this December, but far more attention is directed to the 2015 conference. The stated objective for Paris is a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change involving all the nations of the world.
The United States, said Boots, is already holding high-level negotiations with other major emitters that have not moved aggressively to reduce GHG emissions. President Obama "has spent a lot of time with the leaders of China, India, Brazil and others to try to make sure that as we head toward 2015 they understand the commitments he’s made, and that we are encouraging them to follow with us." In addition, Boots said, the president has talked with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has been leading an effort to repeal his country’s carbon tax.
The closing keynote speaker of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center’s annual conference discussed the administration’s climate strategy on stage with George Shultz. As President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, Shultz led a successful global effort to reduce pollutants that were destroying the Earth’s ozone layer.
"I think these big negotiations of 180 countries are not going to get anywhere," advised Shultz, who leads the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on Energy Policy. "But if you can actually have some key countries do things that work, then others want to join in. Gradually you build something."
Shultz' dealings in the 1980s on ozone, known as the Montreal Protocol, followed such a path. Initially, 20 countries including the United States ratified the agreement to begin phasing out the use of chemicals, like aerosol sprays, that were damaging Earth’s protective ozone stratosphere. Eventually, the agreement resulted in the first universally ratified treaty in U.N. history. The ozone layer began healing several years ago and is expected to return to pre-1980 levels by about 2060.
"That’s kind of the path we’re on. We have a commitment to be part of that big international process, whether it works or not," Boots said at the June 19 conference at Stanford. "At the same time, the president is spending a lot of time in one-on-one bilateral conversations with China and India and Brazil and a few others."
Over the past several years, the Obama administration has pursued GHG reductions mostly through existing laws, primarily the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency has put limits on carbon emissions from any coal-fired power plants built in the future. The administration also reached an agreement with thirteen large automakers to increase fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025. The latter action builds on a 2007 law to increase fuel economy passed by Congress, and supported and signed by President George W. Bush.
Still, said Boots at Stanford when discussing overall goals, "what we’re doing now is not enough. The President has made clear that we have a moral obligation to solve this problem."
(Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.)
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