Tomorrow, the United States is expected to submit its offer for how it will address climate change ahead of United Nations talks in Paris this December.
For the first time since the birth of U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, all U.N. member nations are invited to send in their plan for how they will tackle global warming.
These plans, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs, represent a divergence from historically ‘top-down’ negotiations, where the outcome document is the product of a few major powers. Each submission will include targets for reducing emissions; measures the country will take to adapt to climate impacts; and why the country believes their plan is a fair contribution.
Alden Meyer, from the Union of Concerned Scientists describes the INDCs as “a bottom-up process, where each country decides for itself what it can do based on its national circumstances and political will.”
Governments will meet in Paris later this year to discuss their INDCs and negotiate what many hope will become a legally binding climate treaty. Taken together, the INDCs are required to keep the global average temperature rise below 2ºC, which scientists consider an upper limit.
What will the U.S. INDC look like?
Last November, we received a glimpse as to what the U.S.’s INDC will look like when the U.S. and China announced a joint pledge to reduce emissions. In Beijing, President Obama pledged a 26 to 28 percent reduction in economy-wide emissions below 2005 levels by the year 2025.
It is unknown how the INDC will fit with the Obama administration’s domestic Climate Action Plan, which enumerates how the government will reduce carbon emissions and improve resilience to natural disasters. While some of the measures are in place, including a national cap on pollution from power plants, others are far from implementation.
An U.N. agreement agreed upon this year would come into force from 2020. The U.S. INDC should aim to align well with its domestic policies and potentially include additional measures to ensure it is a success.
Meyer says that the U.S. government has conducted a lot of internal analysis which looks at the existing Climate Action Plan policies and what it could yield over that time frame. However, the U.S. shouldn’t wait until 2020 to increase its climate action. Moreover, ensuring that the INDC process is transparent and inclusive to civil society and other non-state actors is essential.
What are the obstacles?
Although we have an idea about the likely contents of the U.S. INDC, there are a number of impediments to consider which are mainly political.
Last week, the House and Senate each passed their versions of the Republican budget resolution for 2016. The Republicans are calling for large cuts to federal climate change programs and renewable energy deployment. This includes a Senate amendment that would prohibit a carbon tax. A lack of financing poses a threat to any effective plan U.S. negotiators could hope to bring to Paris.
The lengthy build-up to the 2016 presidential elections is another factor likely to upset domestic environmental ambition. Obama’s emissions reduction target for 2025 makes the assumption there’s going to be no meaningful action by Congress over that time period. This is a fair bet, given the political gridlock in Washington.
Yet most of the progress Obama has made on domestic climate action has been implemented through executive action that the next administration could easily overturn. This would render those parts of the U.S. contribution to a 2015 climate treaty null and void.
Democratic hopeful Hilary Clinton has said she would likely keep all Obama’s current actions on climate change where as it is very likely a Republican president would swiftly repeal them.
The uncertainty bodes poorly for a strong global accord, given that ambitious participation by the U.S. is key as the largest historic contributor to global carbon emissions. However, the INDCs are a good step towards forcing the U.S. to take a hard look at what progress they can, and should, take.
Switzerland, the EU, and Mexico were the first to submit their INDCs. The imminent launch of the U.S.’s INDC is an opportunity for the Obama administration to show the world that the U.S. is committed to ambitious climate action and a strong global agreement in Paris.
Marguerite Suozzo-Golé is a researcher at Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab. The opinions reflected in this article are the sole responsibility of the author.