December 15, 2015

Inside Energy Reads: Week of 12/15 Post Paris Roundup

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Covering Paris from Denver was a bit challenging. Luckily, many journalists on the energy beat were in Paris and, if they weren’t, they could rely on their colleagues to cover the minutiae. Some of the best detail and analysis came from the team that work for E&E Publishing’s energy and environmental reporting team. In the aftermath of the accord, E&E’s analysis helped break down what happened and what it means for the future.

This piece, from Greenwire reporter Jean Chemnick, included a post-Paris analysis of how the U.S. managed to get nearly everything they wanted from the deal. As Chenmick put it, the agreement:

“…handed President Obama an international legacy on global warming without crossing any red lines drawn by U.S. negotiators.”

Those red lines were negotiating points that the U.S. was unwilling to give up upon.  Here’s how they stack up:

  • The U.S. could not accept any agreement that would necessitate Senate confirmation (an unlikely prospect, given GOP opposition). The deal had to stay within the bounds of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, already ratified by an earlier U.S. Senate.
  • The agreement had to include a structure for renewing and upping commitments: By 2020, countries must resubmit commitments to emissions reductions through 2030, with the hope being that countries would be able to “ratchet up” their commitments to put the world on the path of actually achieving the climate change goals in the agreement.
  • The agreement needed transparency:  Language on transparency was included in the deal binding under international law. There’s no penalty written into the agreement for NOT meeting emissions targets, but the language encourages countries to meet those goals, requiring all countries to report on emissions and efforts to achieve goals.
  • The agreement needed to keep a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius aspirational, not mandatory. While most scientists agree that the final goal that was reached – keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – is not enough to avoid damaging climate change, the U.S. pushed hard against developing countries to keep 1.5 degrees an “aspirational” rather than actual goal. The reality is, either goal will be difficult if not impossible to reach.

Despite U.S. negotiating successes, many environmentalists and developing countries were unhappy. Chenmick quotes Chee Yoke Ling of Third World Network in Malaysia: “I think the constraints of the U.S. domestic politics that makes it so difficult for the U.S. administration to take on even domestic action, let alone ambitious global actions, I think that domestic constraint unfortunately has spilled over into the international arena.”

In Washington D.C., Republicans were also quick to dismiss the agreement.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opined: “The President is making promises he cannot keep.”

While there were literally dozens of stories from E&E reporters on the conference over the course of the two week meeting – most excellent in parsing the detail and the ravages of late night negotiations. Yet another post-Paris analysis struck me as especially interesting. On Monday, just two days after the conference concluded, Climatewire’s Evan Lehmann reported on a new round of regulations that are percolating on the horizon of emissions cuts.  This time, the regulations are likely aimed straight at industry – oil refiners, cement makers, paper processors, chemical companies and other manufacturers who represent 25 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

This sector will be a key target for future emissions but, as Lehmann puts it:

“The sector has a mongrel membership of dissimilar factories and plants. And it is defended by entrenched political interests.”

Still, the likelihood of meeting President Obama’s goals of cutting U.S. emissions by 28 percent in 10 years will be impossible without reducing emissions in this sector.  The story quotes from a recent paper, penned by George David Banks, a former climate aide to President George W. Bush, saying that post-Paris the Obama White House is expected to focus efforts on regulating industry:

“If that’s the case, it would mark a large move toward decarbonizing the U.S. economy through a series of independent regulations affecting, first, the transportation and electric power sectors and, second, industrial manufacturers. And it would happen without approval from Congress.”

Lehmann recounts a White House meeting earlier this fall that included representatives from many large industrial emitters, including oil giant Shell, cement maker Lafarge North America, and Monsanto. An unnamed source at the meeting said the White House appeared to be laying the groundwork for emissions restrictions on the industrial sector.  It is not a question of if, the source said, but when.