- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

President Obama’s climate deal with China could be derailed easily, analysts say, with the federal government’s legal authority to limit emissions very much in doubt, questions about the auto industry’s ability to meet fuel economy requirements and a brutal political fight with Republicans and the fossil fuels industry awaiting the administration as it implements a surprise plan.

Mr. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the agreement Wednesday morning in Beijing, and environmentalists and others immediately hailed it as a breakthrough in the fight against climate change.

Under terms of the deal — which is not legally binding and carries no penalties if the countries don’t live up to their word — the U.S. says it will cut greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by at least 26 percent by 2025. The White House had been targeting only a 17 percent reduction by 2020.

China’s commitment, while unprecedented, is much less specific. Mr. Xi said his country aims to hit peak emissions by 2030 or earlier and then begin gradual reductions. But according to 2012 estimates reported in The Guardian, China’s carbon dioxide output already was projected to start declining around 2030 as a result of population decline, an achieved standard of living and limits to urbanization.

Together, the U.S. and China account for more than one-third of total global emissions, making the deal a turning point, supporters say.

“This is an ambitious goal, but it is an achievable goal. It will double the pace at which we’re reducing carbon pollution in the United States. It puts us on a path to achieving the deep emissions reductions by advanced economies that the scientific community says is necessary to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference with Mr. Xi. “This is a major milestone in the U.S.-China relationship, and it shows what’s possible when we work together on an urgent global challenge.”

But the deal is tenuous. It relies on a number of assumptions, the biggest of which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal ability to cut the amount of coal burned at U.S. power plants.

The agency has proposed harsh limits on power plant emissions, but analysts say coal facilities can’t operate as cleanly as necessary to meet Mr. Obama’s targets. These plants must be phased out, converted to burn natural gas or replaced entirely with wind or solar power.

The EPA appears to have legal authority under the Clean Air Act to require coal plants to lower harmful emissions, but it’s not clear whether the agency can use the law to require the replacement of coal-burning facilities — a necessary step to reduce power plant emissions 30 percent by 2030.

If lawsuits challenging the EPA agenda are successful, Mr. Obama’s targets become virtually impossible to achieve.

“One of the most significant questions is that the bulk of the reductions EPA is proposing to get come from measures that are outside the fence line of a power plant. If you consider what greenhouse gas emissions reductions you can get from changes to an existing power plant itself you’re really talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 1, 2, maybe 4 percent maximum. That means you need to get 26 [percent] to 29 percent from somewhere else,” said Thomas Lorenzen, a lawyer who until last year served in the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, overseeing legal challenges to EPA rules and regulations.

In addition to limiting power plant emissions, the EPA is relying on a massive increase in automobile fuel economy to meet the president’s goals.

The agency is requiring automakers’ fleets to average 54.5 miles per gallon of gas by 2025. Data released last month show that vehicles sold in the U.S. last year averaged 24.1 mpg, the highest figure ever.

The agency’s preliminary figures for this year show an increase to 24.2 mpg, meaning the industry must pick up the pace dramatically to meet the targets.

Specifics aside, perhaps the biggest challenge to Mr. Obama’s climate change agenda stems from the results of last week’s congressional elections.

With Republicans set to take control of the Senate and with a larger majority in the House, GOP leaders quickly made clear that they intend to launch an all-out assault on the president’s environmental policies and limit their impact as much as possible.

“This announcement is yet another sign that the president intends to double down on his job-crushing policies, no matter how devastating the impact for America’s heartland and the country as a whole. And it is the latest example of the president’s crusade against affordable, reliable energy that is already hurting jobs and squeezing middle-class families,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said in a statement.

“Republicans have consistently passed legislation to rein in the EPA and stop these harmful policies from taking effect, and we will continue to make this a priority in the new Congress,” he said.

Other Republicans pointed out that Mr. Obama is leaving much of the heavy lifting to his successor.

The handshake deal with China, even under the most optimistic negotiating scenarios, could not become a formal treaty until next year’s Paris conference. By that time, Mr. Obama would have to win approval from a Republican-led Senate to make the treaty law.

During the Clinton administration, the Senate pronounced in a 97-0 vote that it would not sign the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and the accord was never submitted formally.

Given that the agreement with China would not be legally binding and would be achieved primarily through regulatory agencies, the next president could roll back the program in easy fashion.

Although the fire from the right is to be expected, Mr. Obama also is taking heat from some on the left who say the agreement does not go far enough.

“The announced U.S. emissions reduction target is grounded in neither the physical reality of climate science nor the lived reality of hundreds of millions of people in developing countries whose lives and livelihoods are in jeopardy due to drought, flooding, fire and other extreme weather events,” said Erich Pica, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

“Simply put, the nonbinding target falls miserably short of what science, justice and equity demand,” he said.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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