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Did Obama Executive Order a post-2020 Commitment from the US?

Sarabeth ObamaOne, Two, Three Climatize!

Did Obama’s Executive Order for an International Climate Action Plan put the US on the road to a low-carbon future? Experts are divided as his Executive Order’s do have the force of law at a National Level, but it does not bind international agreements per say…

Now if that doesn’t confuse, nothing will. Lets dive into it.

Only UN treaties or Conventions can do globally what an executive order does here in the USA. In an NYT article: Using Executive Powers, Obama Begins His Last Big Push on Climate Policy, Obama defended this method of public easement, via the controversial power wielded by the Executive Order.

“The shift to a cleaner-energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way, but a low-carbon, clean-energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. America will build that engine. America will build the future, a future that’s cleaner, more prosperous and full of good jobs.”

By the United Nations Deadline of March 31st, Obama pledged that the U.S. would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025 with the goal of reducing them by 80 percent by 2050.

The Lima accord calls for each party’s post-2020 pledge to “represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that party”. So far, the USA, EU and China are responsible for more than 50 percent of global emissions and have already made their post-2020 plans clear.

But when their pledges to reduce emissions are factored in, global temperatures are still projected to rise three degrees.

The plan from the US is smart because it is ramping up political will and public ambition. 26-28% gives the US wiggle room. But what isn’t fully realized is the Obama’s environmentally-geared Executive Orders are to thank (or blame) for greasing the climate change contribution agreement wheels. These question there is, what happens when the executive changes next year.

Nevertheless, it shows leadership because Obama’s Executive Orders built in the idea of “escalating ambition” for the USA national climate plan.

What does “escalating ambition” mean?

Let’s look at Two Executive Orders that helped to create the USA post-2020 climate pledge.

On January 27, 2009, Obama issued two presidential memoranda concerning energy policy. One directed the Department of Transportation to raise fuel efficiency standards incrementally to 35 miles per US gallon (15 km/L) by 2020.

The other directed the Environmental Protection Agency to allow individual states to set stricter tailpipe emissions regulations than the federal standard.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $54 billion in funds to encourage domestic renewable energy production, make federal buildings more energy-efficient, improve the electricity grid, repair public housing, and weatherize modest-income homes.

These targets used Executive Orders via the Obama Administration to promote economic baby-steps to a low-carbon future embedded within social choices in the United States.

As everyone knows, starting is always the hardest.

It is clear that the USA is showing leadership, but is their national climate plan a strong indicator of how developed countries should act on ambitious targets?

The World Resources Institute argues that these post-2020 pledges could kickstart an “upward spiral of ambition.” Many disagree. Many believe that the mindset is on the right path.

“Their math is right, but it’s not enough,” said Joseph Robertson, global strategy director of the Citizen Climate Lobby (CCL), a nonprofit organization targeting national policies and the power of citizens to address climate change.

“But it could be enough at that rate to reduce American emissions by 80% above 2005 levels by 2050.”

Robertson emphasised that the U.S. National Climate Contribution indeed represents acceleration and reminded that the climate change plan didn’t stray too far from what USA announced with China in November, 2014.

Obama’s national climate change strategy is smart and ambitious for exactly this reason.

It builds upon Obama’s executive orders since 2009 and puts into place a domino effect of what Robertson sees as “governments doing what they are obligated to do– serve the people and protect the future of the nation”.

Executive Orders mimic like a National Climate Contribution leadership because built into it should be escalating ambitions on behalf of the public. Robertson explains in this video that the USA INDC is a way of understand escalating ambitions.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 3.02.30 pm

Robertson walked the audience through the USA INDC. It was easier to understand when put into historical context. Start at the 2005 Baseline. This model is referred to as a Straight line trajectory, which means officially the target year is 2025, but the plan (in Green) is to follow a 5-year rate of decarbonization from 2020 and then accelerate to 2025. It is important to note that the coal industry has pushed for a baseline year of 2005, when emissions were near their peak, while environmentalists wanted a baseline of 2012, when they were lower, meaning that cuts would have to be deeper.

With the beginning to the end of the Bush Administration (2000-2008), emissions went up, the recession hits (2009) those emissions start going down…and when Obama got elected they start raising until Executive Orders encouraged fuel efficiency standards and enforced federal laws against power plant pollution even before his climate action plan (2013) was announced, the emissions continue to decrease.

“… And as you see a drop, the drop is much more visible from policies enacted during the Obama Administration…You can check out all the details in this graph, but to me they show that we are already on the way…”

Robertson continues to remind everyone that “We are charted on a course 2005-2020 of 17% reductions, if they wanted to rig the numbers they should go to 2007-2008 before the financial collapse because the cuts would be considered steeper… but they are going from 2005 because it’s almost 200 million metric tons less than emissions actually went up after the date they are trying to cut from”.
If 2005-2020 was already built into the president’s Climate Action Plan, then ambitions were built via a generous serving of fuel-efficient, power-plant standardized Executive Orders served warm and only getting 2 degrees hotter.

Fact: In 2012, the United States emitted 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, of which two billion came from power plants, most burning coal.

Fact: In 2012, U.S. carbon pollution from the energy sector fell to the lowest level in two decades even as the economy continued to grow.
The foresight regarded by using legislation like the existing Clean Air Act, Obama will not be able to go as far as new legislation, which would have affected multi-sectors of the America public and economy. Yet, even without Executive Orders using existing law to look at things on a sector basis is an excellent move towards paving the way for a climate-action based future.

That’s the goal adopted by Pathway to Paris, an initiative by the Citizen Climate Lobby, a coalition of citizens, stakeholders, NGOs, scholars, and policy-makers working to coordinate a strong agreement in Paris.

“I’m optimistic partly because of what I do, working with citizen volunteers actively building relationships,” Robertson said. “We don’t have to argue about climate change or throw snowballs — that’s all distraction. What’s happening is that we’re getting closer to a time when ideology is no longer a part of the discussion. Instead, it will be about how fast and efficiently are we going to do this.”


All in all… the USA plan is climate smart because is it ramping up political will and public ambition. It has a lower bar and a higher bar… and isn’t that better than no bar at all?

About Sarabeth Brockley

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