How the US’s post-2020 climate target could fit into a global deal

The US proposes to meet its climate targets through regulation, including reducing carbon emissions from coal power plants by a third below 2005 levels. Cathy/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The United States’ formal submission this week of its intended post 2020 climate target raises several questions for this year’s global climate talks.

How strong are the targets? Can the US government deliver? What impact might this have as we move towards the crucial December Paris negotiations that will attempt to settle a new international climate agreement? And what are the implications for Australia?

Can the United States deliver?

Under the agreement from the climate negotiations in Lima last December, all countries will put forward their proposed post-2020 targets and climate action plans by November this year at the latest, and preferably sooner.

The commitments will be subject to an analysis of how they measure up by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat and be part of the negotiations at Paris. The US is now one of 34 governments (the 28 European Union nations plus the US, Russia, Norway, Switzerland, Mexico and Gabon) to put forward their proposed action.

The US has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. White House senior adviser Brian Deese told reporters during a March 31 conference call that this puts the US on track to cut emissions “on the order of 80% by 2050”, saying:

The administration’s climate work will help meet the ambitious but achievable goal we have submitted today. We have the tools we need to meet this goal and take action on pollution. And we know this is good for our economy, good for our health and good for our future.

For one of the major polluting countries this is a substantial commitment. Some strengthening of the commitment is probably needed to ensure the United States is doing it’s fair share of required action to keep global warming within the internationally agreed target limit of 2C. This is a question on which further analysis will be required.

The climate negotiations were given substantial momentum last November when US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping jointly called for an ambitious outcome from Paris and committed their countries to action. The US submission is consistent with this announcement and will continue to build momentum for solid outcomes from Paris.

President Obama is taking the legal route of regulating greenhouse emissions through the Environment Protection Authority under the Clean Air Act. This regulatory path under the Clean Air Act has been tested in and agreed by the US Supreme Court.

It is unlikely that future administrations or the Congress would overturn this approach - the Clean Air Act has existed since the Nixon Administration, and the Act and most of its regulations once in place have stood the test of time.

What does this mean for Australia?

If one were to compare it directly with the US pledge, one could argue that Australia should be putting forward an emissions-reduction target of 26-28% by 2025 on a 2005 baseline. However the Australian government is using a different baseline, of the year 2000.

The government’s Climate Change Authority has recommended Australia reduce emissions between 30 and 40% by 2025 on this 2000 baseline.

The US emission-reduction target is broadly consistent with its existing internationally agreed commitment, as included in the Cancun climate agreements of 2010.

In this current international agreement, the US has committed to reduce emissions by 17% by 2020 off a 2005 baseline, on a trajectory that would entail a 30% reduction by 2025.

There is an important point here. Australia’s international commitments in the Cancun Agreement are to reduce emissions buy 5-25% by 2020 off a 2000 baseline, depending on the action of other countries.

Independent analysis by the Climate Change Authority last year says that current action by other governments means that our 2020 target should be of the order of 15%. Curiously, the Australian government’s issues paper on emissions reduction, released last weekend, says rather baldly and inaccurately that the current 2020 target is just 5%.

This will come as news to the US and the international community who will be expecting Australia to be consistent with its current international climate commitments and be building off that for its post-2020 target. It would be fair for the international community to be sending Australia a big “please explain” right now!

With the previous international climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, the Australian government of the day was able to hide behind US inaction on climate change as an argument for not ratifying that agreement – until Australian voters changed the government.

With a solid US post-2020 emission reduction target now on the table, Australia should not and will not be able to hide behind US inaction on climate change now.

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