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US actions on climate change in the next administration

24 October 2012
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For over two decades the EU has established a track record in global leadership on climate change. While producing mixed results, the EU remains committed to regional and global policies and actions advancing energy sustainability. Although sovereign debt, financial and other economic distresses have rocked the EU since 2008, these difficulties have not lessened the prominence of climate change on the EU’s political agenda. In contrast, the US has failed to keep pace with the EU’s standards in terms of domestic policies as well as participation in international agreements to reduce harmful emissions. Regardless of who wins, the next US administration will face high expectations by the EU for stronger action on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The EU’s commitment to mitigating climate change is linked to US actions in at least four dimensions. First, the centrepiece of the EU’s actions caps greenhouse gas emissions (leading to 2020 emissions at 21 per cent below the 2005 level) and allows trading of emission allowances with the EU Emissions Trading System covering around 11,000 power and industrial plants in 30 countries. In 2012, the EU expanded this programme to include aviation operations in Europe as well as announcing technical and financial assistance to China in designing and implementing programmes for emissions trading. In direct conflict with the EU’s programme, bills were approved by the US House in October 2011 and Senate in September 2012 to exempt US airlines from having to purchase allowances under the EU system. More broadly, the US has fallen behind the EU on national incentives to reduce emissions. The Senate failed to follow the House in approving a programme to cap and trade allowances in 2009, and neither party has supported such legislation since then. Similarly, strong Congressional and industrial opposition confronted the US Environmental Protection Agency’s proposals for limiting greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing facilities.

Second, at international conferences in 2009 and 2010, the EU, US and other developed countries pledged significant financial resources to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change – about US $30 billion in the 2010-12 ‘fast start’ programme, and about US $100 billion annually by 2020. The EU committed to provide about one-third of fast start financing, and gave about US $7 billion in 2010-11. Along the same lines but less drastically than the EU, the US increased its international climate financing to US $5 billion in 2010-11. The EU expects that the US and other developed countries will cooperate in scaling up finances available to tackle climate change between 2013 and 2020. As a result of these pledges, the next US administration faces heavier financing obligations to aid climate change actions in developing countries.

Third, the EU is pressing for an ambitious, comprehensive and legally binding global climate agreement in 2015 to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol. The EU has repeatedly signalled its desire for a strong new international agreement, including among others: the commitment in 2008 to a 20 per cent reduction target for its region by 2020 compared to its 1990 level, raising the share of energy produced by wind, solar and biomass to 20 per cent by 2020, proposing to increase the spending on climate-relevant measures to at least 20 per cent in the EU’s budget in 2014-20, and endorsing the target for 2050 of reducing EU emissions by 80-95 per cent compared to 1990 levels as part of collective efforts by developed countries to reduce their emissions by a similar degree.

In contrast to the EU’s efforts, the US did not sign the Kyoto Protocol and has not adopted national standards for renewable energy production or emissions reductions. Emissions in the US in 2010 were 10.5 per cent above its 1990 level. Since the EU adopted its target in 2008, the US (as well as China, India and some other major emitters) have not followed the EU’s lead to create a binding global agreement on emissions limitations. The next US administration will have to decide whether to cooperate with the EU in seeking a binding commitment encompassing all or almost all major emitters. Such US participation would require not only Senate approval but also stronger federal actions on clean energy and energy efficiency.

Finally, recent actions by the EU’s largest member countries further demonstrate Europe’s deep commitment to addressing climate change. In particular, Germany’s subsidies yielded 7.5 gigawatts of solar installations in 2011, and France adopted major laws in 2009 and 2010 strengthening many environmental programmes, including renovating 400,000 buildings annually in a bid to achieve 38 per cent less energy consumption by buildings in 2020. Furthermore, the United Kingdom’s Department of Health released a report in September 2012 on the risks to public health from climate change, which forecasted that the nation’s annual heat-related deaths will rise from 2,000 in 2010 to 12,000 in 2080. These actions have highlighted Europe’s expectation for stronger US clean energy and energy efficiency programmes to lessen US emissions (19 per cent of global total).

The EU’s policies are closer to Barack Obama’s energy programme than to Mitt Romney’s position. Neither US presidential candidate highlights climate change issues as a matter of domestic policy or international relations. While both men seek energy security, neither candidate supports an energy tax or cap-and-trade which would reduce consumption as well as emissions. Obama promises to develop more clean energy and increase energy efficiency and indeed his presidency has witnessed federal support for renewable energy installations and research, regulations raising fuel efficiency of vehicles, stricter limits on emissions by coal power plants, funding for high-speed railroads, and other actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. Romney offers a different course for energy touted as producing more economic growth. He embraces coal and other fossil fuels (ending federal subsidies for wind and solar energy), opposes many environmental regulations - perceiving them as imposing job-killing costs on domestic industries and households - and mocks Obama’s efforts to mitigate rising sea levels.

Independently of the election's outcome, the EU expects strong actions by the next US administration to tackle climate change. But a large gap is likely to remain, especially under Romney, between the EU positions and the domestic programmes and international commitments of the US.

Warren Lavey, an attorney and economist who was a partner at the global law firm Skadden, Arps, is an Affiliate of the University of Illinois EU Center, Adjunct Professor in the Departments of Geology and Agriculture at the University of Illinois, Senior Fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center (Chicago, Illinois), and Senior Regulatory Counsel at American Clean Skies Foundation (Washington, DC)