US best-we-can plan not good enough to change the climate

The US President’s Climate Action Plan is the first time in a long while that the US has been proactive on climate change. It is certainly not enough, as in the US contributing a fair share of the cuts needed to actually address climate change. Yet as a refreshing change from decades of inaction it has led many observers to welcome the move. Perhaps too many of us have internalized the domestic constraints in the US, so much that we are inclined to accept what is not good enough, just because it is the best the US claims it can do. Accepting a trying-our-best plan is not good enough.

The plan is not enough to avoid dangerous climate change, nor to seriously bend the curve of rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions.  Essentially, the US is telling us by what action it will achieve its existing target (17% below 2005 by 2020, which is 2-4% below 1990 levels), how it will adapt – and then dares to claim global leadership. It does not add up.

In brief, it combines a number of domestic actions, but only to explain how it might reach the existing, unambitious target. And it claims global leadership without having earned it. This is not a plan that says “yes we can” solve climate change. It is more along the lines of here’s the best we think we can do.

The bulk of this blog explains the critique in more detail.  But before moving to the critique, let me acknowledge two things.

Firstly, there is a very clear commitment to an approach based on science and ethics. It is good to have world leaders make clear there is no time to doubt that the science in clear. And to make clear ethical arguments for taking action, clearly putting down a challenge to vested interests that do not want to change. Secondly, the presentation on the White House web-site is graphically impressive and includes many numbers. Lots of claims of having made progress, but with more work to do. That’s typical for many governments putting a good show on what they do, and better than most in clarity of presentation (sure, there’s spin, but it’s not all PR)

Perhaps the most significant, at least from afar, is a cap on existing power plants. Obama directs the US-EPA to complete carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. A cap on existing power plants would be significant – of course it would help to be told what the reduced levels would be, and by when EPA will complete these. With a clear Presidential mandate, though, it seems to me the Agency could make a reasonable strong move. But one has to put one’s faith into that the detail will be good.

Which leads me to the critique. It’s been a long haul for those trying to understand when and how much the US might move. From signing Kyoto in 1997 (with no chance of ratification) under Clinton; for formally withdrawing from Kyoto under Bush Senior in 2001; to proposing that it would act internationally “in accordance with domestic law” for Copenhagen 2009; to the realization that neither Waxman-Markey nor other legislation would pass; we finally arrive at the US Presidency using its executive authority.

Which has some potentially good bits. But also some aspects that are not clear, and much that is unsaid. My main concern is not with the domestic policies and measures. Others are better placed to assess whether these are ambitious enough.

What is astounding is the claim in the US President’s plan to “lead international efforts to address global climate change”. Sound like global leadership? That is real smoke-and-mirrors. Leadership cannot be simply stated, it has to be earned. And the US has been a laggard in climate action, not a leader. And there’s not enough substance in the Presidential plan on multi-lateral efforts to convince that that has changed yet.

The plan to “lead international efforts to address global climate change”  consists of mini-lateralism in the Major Economies Forum; bilateral cooperation with China, India and maybe Brazil; short-lived climate forces, REDD (preferably in other countries), low-emissions development strategies (ditto?), and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. The last is a good idea, I think, but overall there is a sense of a package of options thrown together. Where is the coherent, and dare one ask – legally binding, zero-emissions strategy for the US

Obama’s plan does refer to the 2015 Agreement under the Convention. It says the US will be “seeking an agreement that is ambitious, inclusive and flexible”.  Ambitious is good, inclusive is great if it means near-universal participation. The rub is to substitute flexible for what should say ‘legally binding’. Flexibility in mechanisms and timing are helpful, but an agreement whose fundamental characteristic is flexibility will have a hard time demonstrating its contribution.

Noticeable by their absence are any numbers on international finance. In the much-loved Copenhagen Accord, President Obama with several other leaders of developed countries make a political promise to “jointly mobilise” $100 billion per year by 2020. Now all that remains is a claim to have provided $ 7.5 billion of fast-start funding – no clarity whether it was new or additional. And then to combine “our public resources with smart policies to mobilize much larger flows of private investment”. How much, by when? No idea. This seems a clear step backwards. No basis to claim global leadership, when you are still the remaining super-power, even if you are looking over your shoulder at China.

Which brings me to another major concern with the US plan. Where is the “yes we can” approach to solving climate change? If the US does this little (measured by what is needed and what is fair), will then the EU be persuaded to move from 20% to 30%, or even beyond? Taking along Poland, the host of the next COP?  Countries like China, Brazil, South Africa and others will have to do better than the US President’s plan. And is that really fair?

The UNFCCC is cited a grand total of two times in twenty-one pages. Once in reference to the Copenhagen Accord, which was merely ‘noted’ by the COP. And the second time, to indicate progress in “a variety of other important negotiations”. The message could not be clearer – the US prefers to do the business of climate change in smaller settings, where it can (still?) call the shots.  And where everyone pays their own way.

One of those other venues is the WTO, it seems. The US aims to negotiate a “Global Free Trade in Environmental Goods and Services”, on solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. Built on initial agreement in APEC. That sounds fine, if the realities were not the US (and others) are involved in trade wars over these technologies. And experience with ‘free trade agreements’ is that they are anything but free, and seldom favourable to the weak.  A lot more detail needs to be put forward if this idea is to gain ground.

In my view, the biggest weakness of the US President’s plan is its approach to global action. This is not merely a defence of the UNFCCC (which might seem quaint to those who think they understand Realpolitik). It is the nature of the problem and its solution. Climate change is by nature a global problem (which President Obama understands, clearly) and it requires collective action. If one country has confidence that others will act, it is more likely that it will go beyond its comfort zone. The series of engagements that the Obama plan includes simply have no way of answering this question: Is its envisaged global response to climate change adequate to solving the problem?

That also applies to the domestic policies. The Obama plan seems to take up several emission reduction actions that an excellent WRI analysis on using existing federal laws and State action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions . It includes even some so-called “go-getter” policies – though not new federal legislation.  The point is that ambition of that analysis was only to demonstrate whether the US can reduce its GHG emission to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. A plan that mostly gets there does nothing close to the 25%-40% below 1990 levels required. Obama’s plan makes no statements about future increases in ambition.  While we all (inside-the-beltway NGOs and international observers) have become experts in what is not possible on the Hill in Washington, the simple reality is that it is not enough.

We cannot let global action on climate change be constrained by Realpolitik of the US kind. It simply won’t do the job.

Perhaps the report card for President Obama’s plan reads: “Must try harder.”