As the U.S. Approaches Durban, Administration Pushes for More Domestic Pollution Cuts

This is a revision of an earlier article to reflect the evolving international climate negotiations.

by Daniel J. Weiss, Andrew Light and Jackie Weidman

The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) begins today in Durban, South Africa.

In advance of the meeting, some nations have legitimately criticized the United States for its lack of leadership in the development of a climate agreement that puts the world on the path to reducing the carbon and other pollution responsible for climate change.

A variety of issues will confront the Obama administration at the meeting, particularly additional progress on the essential measures advanced last year at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico.  Most importantly, COP17 must agree to an implementing document for the Green Climate Fund that will finance adaptation efforts in developing nations likely to be affected by climate change.

Another key element is the emerging deal over how and whether the Kyoto Protocol will be extended for a second commitment period beyond 2012.  While the U.S. is not a party to that agreement, the European Union is pressuring all parties at this year’s COP to agree to opening discussions for a new binding treaty after 2020 in exchange for their commitment to keep the protocol in place for another five years.

As they have in years past, the United States negotiating team has been playing hard ball.  For example, it demands that any emerging climate agreement after 2020 be relatively symmetrical for all major carbon polluters, especially China.  But, as in years past, American efforts to shape the outcome of the meeting are again hampered by criticisms by other nations for its lack of leadership in reducing its own emissions.  Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action, urged that in deciding climate policy, “it only makes sense if major emitters are willing to say, if not what, [then] when are you willing to say you’re willing to commit.”

This year, these critics of the U.S. position should acknowledge that the Obama administration is using its administrative authority to require pollution reductions, despite fervent opposition from nearly all Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.  In the last few months, the Environmental Protection Agency scrapped new regulations on smog-forming emissions and delayed rules on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, setting off criticism from environmental groups that want to see more action on these issues. However, there are other rules in the works that could have a significant impact on global warming pollution.  On November 16 and 17, the administration announced two steps that could reduce carbon dioxide pollution from the two largest United States’ sources – motor vehicles and power plants.

The Energy Information Administration reports that coal plants make up 35% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Likewise, the transportation sector is responsible for 34% of all carbon dioxide emissions by sector.  The final versions of rules proposed to reduce pollution from these sources must reflect reductions possible with the most modern technology, and the power plant rules must cover both new and existing sources. If this occurs, the United States would put a major down payment on climate change pollution reductions.

The Obama administration’s new proposed rules to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from cars built from 2017-2025 should be applauded. The November 16 announcement from the Obama Administration represents the most significant step that the federal government has taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The joint proposal, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) sets stronger fuel economy and carbon dioxide tailpipe standards for passenger cars and light trucks, designating an average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg in 2025.

This proposal builds on the successful standards that the EPA and DOT are currently implementing for cars and light trucks built between 2012 and 2016.  According to the White House, the administration’s fuel efficiency standard takes historic steps to reduce our dependence on oil by an estimated 12 billion barrels, and reduce oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels per day by 2025, which equals as much as half of the oil we import from OPEC nations each day. Americans will reduce gasoline purchases by over $1.7 trillion at the pump, or over $8,000 per vehicle, by 2025.

On November 17, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced plans early next year to propose the first ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. The EPA originally planned to issue these rules in June, and again in September, but they took longer to develop and hopefully get right after consulting with businesses, states, and other stake holders. It is essential that the EPA establishes carbon dioxide pollution restrictions for both new and existing coal fired power plants.

The Obama administration’s efforts are occurring in a very hostile, anti-scientific national political environment. Many politicians simply don’t believe climate change is already underway, let alone support any solutions. This scientific ignorance and opposition makes the United States different from every other democracy, and limits our ability to play the leadership role befitting a super power.  For example, the House of Representatives refused a zero-cost reorganization of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create a National Climate Service that would act as a “one-stop shop” for climate data. Its opponents claim that the service could become a “propaganda source,” instead of commending the administration on a cost-effective solution for increasing demand for climate information.

While members of Congress are swatting down even the most harmless climate science programs, the Obama administration is trying to invest in our clean energy future. These investments are essential due to their lasting economic benefits, potential for new job creation and consumer savings, and significant environmental gains.  While governmental and non-governmental parties at Durban may fairly criticize the Obama administration’s negotiating positions, they should not doubt its commitment to reducing emissions despite an extremely difficult political environment at home.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress; Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of International Climate Policy at CAP; and Jackie Weidman is a Special Assistant for Environmental Policy at CAP.

2 Responses to As the U.S. Approaches Durban, Administration Pushes for More Domestic Pollution Cuts

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks But

    Thanks for the update/revision, but this is barely, barely better — context-wise and tone-wise — than the earlier one.

    Why still apologies and excuses (in effect) for the Administration and, indeed, for the U.S.?

    First of all, consider this phrase: “… limits our ability to play the leadership role befitting a super power.” Wow! And what limits our ability? The “national political environment” and the “scientific ignorance and opposition”. Again, wow.

    Let’s be clear, shall we: we are not only not playing “the leadership role befitting a super power.” We are being positively and persistently harmful and unjust — immoral. The problem is not that we are neglecting to use our “super power” to help the world face meanies, right wrongs, and solve problems that OTHERS are causing. Instead, it’s this: BECAUSE we are “powerful”, or at least think we are (although we are increasingly less so, as time moves forward), we apparently feel no urgent need to cease our own harmful and unjust behavior.

    If folks at CAP think that members of the Obama Administration, and the U.S. negotiating delegation, deserve anything better (from many folks from other countries at COP17) than to have pies thrown in their faces, please let me know! Indeed — although I’m sorry to have to say this — given all the time that has passed, and all the previous failed meetings, at this point I DO hope that there are some pies thrown.

    Now, about that “scientific ignorance” and the “national political environment”: My goodness, Obama has been President for nearly three years. He has had the opportunity to use the bully pulpit, but hasn’t. Being the President, he could call on any scientific body in the U.S., or indeed most of them around the world, to share the bully pulpit with him, or other venues, and to help carry the message, to educate the American people. All things considered, a very great deal of the blame, at this point, for the fact that the American public are still “not where they should be” with respect to understanding the problem of climate change, and what we could and should do about it, is with the President. Let’s put it this way: A very big reason — a very big contributing factor — why we are where we are, has to do with what the President has and HASN’T done, and has and HASN’T said.

    I am frankly flabbergasted if folks don’t understand that?!

    The post wants critics of the U.S. to acknowledge that the Obama Administration has used its administrative authority despite the difficult political situation. Here is the latest, greatest use of “administrative authority” on the part of the Administration: President Obama decided to delay his decision regarding Keystone XL. Bravo! A decision to not make a decision.

    It’s no wonder that the U.S. delegation probably doesn’t have — and indeed shouldn’t have — any credibility left at the COP meetings at this point. Bring out the pies!

    In my view, people who have a deep understanding of the words ‘responsibility’, ‘leadership’, ‘justice’, ‘credibility’, and so forth — of what they are meant to mean — should understand at this point that the U.S. negotiators and the Obama Administration deserve nothing more than pies in their faces at COP17 from the leaders and peoples of countries that ARE suffering harms from climate change, or likely to suffer them, and that ARE willing and eager to form agreements and reduce their own emissions.

    So, may I get a clear and simple answer, please? All things considered, do folks here really think that the U.S. deserves any applause at this point? Is the conclusion really that the Obama Administration is doing the best that it can?

    There IS a way to convey the basic info in this post, you know, without acting as an apologist for the Administration or for the U.S., or without suggesting or implying excuses. In one post, one could simply list the various things that the Admin has done — a basic factual post — including things on both sides of the ledger, so to speak (e.g., the auto emissions stuff, the delay of the Keystone XL decision, and so forth). Then, in a separate post, one could be honest, and honestly critical, about the U.S. and the Obama Administration in relation to climate change. No holds barred. Throw the pie in the face, so to speak.

    If, after all this time, you can’t imagine that perspective, imagine living on one of those many islands that will be wiped out, one way or another, if we don’t address climate change. Then consider how much the U.S. has contributed to atmospheric CO2, and how much we still insist on doing so. Then consider how long the climate negotiations have been taking place — many years — and the role that the U.S. has played in delaying and preventing any real progress. Now get your pies out.

    But all these facts must certainly be clear to CP after all this time. So WHY the apologies and excuses? Why do many of these posts still seem to convey, or suggest, that the Emperor still has clothes on? That sort of stance actually prevents, or at least hampers, real progress.

    Sorry for all this.

    Be Well,


  2. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    So the USA is going to ‘play hardball’? When has it ever done otherwise? In every international body, every venue, all talks on any matters, the USA bullies, cajoles, bribes and intimidates to get its way. The climate talks are no different. It’s ‘either you are with us (ie ‘The American Way of Life’ is non-negotiable)or you are against us (and with the various ‘terrorists’). These talks will be sabotaged by the usual intransigent insistence that the USA, being ‘the indispensable power’ be treated ‘exceptionally’, and when they fail, China will be blamed.