President Obama on Tuesday announced a new U.S. promise to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but the White House will face many of the same roadblocks it is encountering with Iran nuclear negotiations, as Congress demands a final say in whatever climate deal the president tries to sign.
In a formal submission to the United Nations ahead of a high-level Paris climate conference in December, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. will cut its emissions by at least 26 percent over the next 10 years, a target he first laid out last year during a stop in Beijing. The American pledge came in conjunction with guarantees by China, the world’s No. 1 polluter, that it will hit peak emissions no later than 2030.
The U.S.-China dual announcement was hailed by environmentalists as a landmark victory in the fight against climate change, but Republicans on Capitol Hill panned the agreement.
GOP leaders now are taking an even harder line, saying they expect the Senate, not the White House, to ultimately decide whether the U.S. signs on to the U.N. climate change deal and formally pursues ambitious pollution cuts.
“The Obama administration’s pledge to the United Nations today will not see the light of day with the 114th Congress,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “When a treaty comes before the Senate, I fully expect for a majority of my colleagues to stand with the rest of Americans who want affordable energy and more economic opportunity, neither of which will be obtainable with the president’s current climate deal.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also said that other nations should be wary of expecting the U.S. to follow through on any deal that can’t clear the Republican-controlled Congress.
The administration hasn’t yet said whether it will submit the U.S. side of the deal to the Senate for approval, which would be necessary if the U.N. pursues a formal international treaty.
Officials say it’s not clear exactly what form the final Paris agreement will take and whether it will require member countries to seek legislative approval at home.
Without a treaty — which would legally bind the U.S. to whatever emissions targets it lays out — the administration still could enter into an international climate agreement, but the U.S. in years to come wouldn’t necessarily be bound by Mr. Obama’s actions.
The White House has found itself in a somewhat similar predicament in nuclear negotiations with Iran, with lawmakers stressing to the president and to leaders in Tehran that the House and Senate intend to be an integral part of the decision-making process. They’ve said that without congressional approval, any unilateral deal could be undone unilaterally by the next president.
Meanwhile, administration officials say the U.S. emissions targets are a vital component to any global climate change deal. The White House intends to achieve a 26 percent reduction in emissions through a variety of regulations, including new limits on power plant pollution, increased fuel economy requirements on automobiles and other steps.
“It’s past time for the world to take action. Under President Obama’s leadership, the United States is doing our part to take on this global challenge,” said Brian Deese, senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “The United States’ target is ambitious and achievable, and we have the tools we need to reach it. The goal will roughly double the pace at which we’re reducing carbon pollution through cost-effective measures using laws already on the books.”
Even if the U.S. enters into a legally binding climate agreement, there still would be major questions about whether the emissions targets are feasible. The central part of the emissions-reduction strategy — new restrictions on power plant pollution — faces an uncertain future, with several legal challenges to the plan yet to be decided.
Despite the host of uncertainties, the U.N. expects all countries to make good on their promises.
“Countries have agreed that there will be no backtracking in these national climate plans, meaning that the level of ambition to reduce emissions will increase over time,” the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said in a statement.
Some specialists say the president has leeway on the global climate deal, though much depends on exactly what the final proposal looks like.
“One critical question is whether the [emissions] goals themselves are actually internationally binding or whether it’s the obligation to set a goal and report on your implementation of it. Those are two very different things,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Mr. Diringer said he believes there will be a domino effect in terms of countries’ climate commitments, with nations seeking to hold each other accountable even without legally binding treaties.
“What we’re working toward is a system of institutionalized peer pressure where countries are expected to set goals for all to see and report on how they’re implementing those in a very transparent way,” he said.
The White House also is taking fire from some environmental groups who believe the proposal does not go nearly far enough in reducing emissions and fighting climate change.
“Instead, it moves us closer to the brink of global catastrophe, with increasing food and water shortages, conflict, climate exodus and the potential deaths of millions — particularly in countries least resourced to cope with the shocks of more intense weather patterns,” said Benjamin Schreiber, climate and energy program director at Friends of the Earth.