The U.S. has submitted a pledge to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025, using a variety of regulations, headlined by rules slashing carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants.
That approach would be different than the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which imposed legally-binding emissions cuts. The Senate did not ratify that top-down approach, and the U.S. never entered the agreement, resulting in the new strategy that places the onus on individual countries to set their own targets.
But opponents see it as an end-run around Congress. Lee said at a Heritage Foundation event that the approach smacked of “contempt” for the legislature and that President Obama was relying on “compulsion, not persuasion” to push the climate agenda.
The White House is placing a high priority on the talks to help cement Obama’s legacy on climate change. Obama himself will be in Paris at the beginning of the summit, when he’ll hold bilateral talks with leaders from China and India and speak at the opening ceremonies with other heads of state. Several other Cabinet members, including Secretary of State John Kerry, will appear throughout the conference to bolster the U.S. position.
Besides the legal nature of the agreement, negotiators will have to set up a system of reporting and transparency to ensure countries are keeping up on their cuts, plus a schedule for future talks. There’s also going to be a debate over climate financing to help developing countries.
The pledges alone won’t be enough to stop the world’s temperatures from rising past the 2-degrees-Celsius threshold that scientists say may be a breaking point, but negotiators say it can put the world on the right path—if the deal goes through.
“I think it’s important that we get an agreement that the U.S. can join,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “If Senate ratification is a hurdle that can’t be cleared, it makes sense to negotiate the strongest possible agreement that can be accepted by the president on his own authorities.”
Republican legislators are also doing all they can to inject uncertainty into the talks. The House next week will vote on Congressional Review Act resolutions that would overturn the White House’s power-plant-emission rules, a bid to convince the world that Congress is not on board with the climate agenda. The White House has promised to veto the measures, which already passed the Senate.
It’s also possible that resolutions related to Senate approval will see votes, although none are scheduled. Republican legislators may even make their own trips to Paris to stir up doubt in the talks.
Jake Schmidt, who works on international issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that while the legal nuances of the document are important, what ultimately matters is getting every country’s targets in place for the future.
“At the end of the day, the words on the paper, whether it says ‘shall’ … or something less legally binding than that … eventually come down to whether countries are mobilizing these changes on the ground,” Schmidt said. “That becomes the cornerstone of the agreement.”