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Quick action on climate deal could lock in US role

21 Apr 2016 22:15 (+01:00 GMT)
Quick action on climate deal could lock in US role

Washington, 21 April (Argus) — Swift adoption of the Paris agreement to combat global climate change could ensure a future president cannot easily unravel the US' participation in the accord.

World leaders will gather in New York tomorrow to sign the Paris agreement to fight climate change. While supporters hail the signing as an important continuation of momentum for global action, the agreement faces a number of obstacles in the US, particularly in the form of opposition from Republican lawmakers.

A key moment will come, perhaps later this year, when at least 55 countries representing 55pc of global greenhouse gas emissions formally join the agreement. At that point, the agreement will be deemed to have entered into full force. After that, it will become increasingly difficult for a future president to pull the US out of the accord.

"A new president could not say ‘I would like to withdraw tomorrow,'" a senior State Department official said.

That is because the agreement includes provisions that require a lengthy process for countries to pull out after the accord takes effect. A country must wait at least three years after the agreement enters into force before it can propose to withdraw. And then it has to wait another year to do so.

Without entry into force, "there would be less of a hurdle," World Resources Institute international climate director David Waskow said.

When exactly the agreement will take effect is unclear. The timing will depend on how quickly the signatories act. More than 150 countries are expected to sign the agreement tomorrow, with the US to be represented by secretary of state John Kerry.

This is just a first step, but supporters view the expected turnout as a strong sign the Paris agreement has legs, and that countries will act quickly to join formally.

"This significantly increases the chances that the agreement will enter into force this year. After all, who wants to be the last to join this climate agreement?" Natural Resources Defense Council international program director Jake Schmidt said.

The deal calls on nearly 200 countries to take steps to limit the increase in global average temperatures to 2°C. It includes binding obligations for countries to report on their progress in achieving their emissions pledges, but it does not make those commitments legally binding. The US has pledged to cut its GHG emissions by 26-28pc from 2005 levels by 2025.

The US and China, which account for about 40pc of global GHG emissions, say they plan to formally join this year, while a number of other countries have made similar statements.

For some countries, this means a formal ratification via a legislative process, while for others it could be executive action. President Barack Obama intends to treat the deal as an executive agreement, rather than submit it to a Republican-controlled Senate that almost certainly would refuse to ratify it.

The White House is confident it can join the accord as an executive agreement. The US has joined a number of international agreements this way, most recently the Minimata Convention on Mercury in 2013.

The executive agreement approach is based on the idea that the Paris agreement builds on commitments the Senate ratified in the 1990s, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty, rather that creating any new ones. For example, the new agreement requires the US and other countries to report on their emissions and progress toward making reductions.

"This is an elaboration of that kind of commitment, which the executive branch can move on," the senior State Department official said.

Congressional Republicans concede there is little they can do directly to stop US participation in the agreement since the president is not submitting it to the Senate.

Instead, Republicans are hoping "soft" measures, such as questioning the US' ability to meet its pledge and trying to block funding for key programs, will chip away at international confidence in the deal. The US Supreme Court's ruling putting the administration's Clean Power Plan regulations on hold should be seen as a sign the US will not meet its commitments under the Paris agreement, critics say.

"When the hype over the signing fades, the reality will set in that the policies President Obama is promising will not last," said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), one of the leading opponents of the agreement.

Supporters are banking on the idea that continued international action will make it difficult for the US to reverse course, as it did with the Kyoto Protocol. "There would be a strong reaction globally that any administration would have to take into account," Waskow said.

By the time a new president could extricate the US from the accord, global efforts will be well underway. Significant investments will have been made, making an about-face all the more difficult.