U.S. Fossil-Fuel Cut Must Go Deeper to Spur Climate Fight

The U.S. must go much further than President Barack Obama has proposed in reducing carbon emissions if the fight against global warming is to gain any traction.

Obama proposed cutting the share of U.S. electricity generated from coal-fired plants to 30 percent by 2030 from 39 percent last year, according to a statement from the Environmental Protection Agency. That must decline to 14 percent to prevent dangerous climate change, the International Energy Agency estimates.

The statistic underscores the scale of the challenge in containing rising temperatures, which the United Nations says are likely to increase more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. That’s the fastest shift in the climate since the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago.

“We would like to see more efforts to come from the United States,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, said in an interview in London yesterday. “The continuation of energy-efficiency policies are crucial in the U.S., and the support for renewable energies should also continue.”

While officials in Europe said the U.S. needs to do more, it drew criticism from U.S. lawmakers who said said Obama’s proposal goes too far and risks jobs, especially in coal-producing states.

Obama’s program covers power plants, which produced 32 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases in 2012, according to the EPA. The U.S. hasn’t set an emissions target for the entire economy, something that his administration has pledged to do, along with 190 other nations as part of a UN-brokered climate deal.

UN Climate Talks

Envoys gathered by the UN expect to create a plan to curb emissions from 2020 onward. While Obama won praise from Tokyo to Brussels for making an important step in that effort, they say more action from the U.S. is needed to give credibility to the international fight against global warming.

“All countries, including the United States, must do even more than what this reduction trajectory indicates,” EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said in a statement from her office in Brussels. “This is an important step for an administration and a president really investing politically in fighting climate change.”

The U.S. declined to ratify the last major agreement on climate, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, because it applied only to industrial nations. No limits were set for developing countries such as China and India, whose emissions have since caught up with their richer counterparts.

The U.S. effort may set an example for other nations, according to the IEA.

“I hope that there will be some spillover effects of this policy,” Birol said. “This is definitely a very good step, a courageous step, and it goes definitely in the direction that we would like to see.”

China and India

China and India have said they would join in mandatory cuts as long as there’s deeper action from U.S. and other developed nations, which remain the biggest historical sources of carbon dioxide emissions.

“The ambition levels are just not high enough,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science & Environment. “It’s not going to convince anyone.”

Officials in Beijing and New Delhi didn’t immediately comment on Obama’s proposal, though ministers in Japan and Germany said it would help give the UN talks traction.

“President Obama has given the U.S climate policy a new and possibly decisive impulse,” German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said in an e-mailed response to questions from her office in Berlin. “This is good news and a courageous step toward more climate protection in the U.S., and it will also set a clear signal from a global perspective. It creates hope for the international climate negotiations.”

Japanese Reaction

Japan, which in November watered down its pledge on curbing fossil-fuel emissions, said the U.S. program is a bold step forward.

“There are many states that are dependent on coal power,” Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara said at a news conference in Tokyo yesterday. “We hope the U.S. will make progress toward the EPA targets.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Obama’s decision shows how nations can clean up emissions without a carbon tax. The government in Canberra is working to eliminate its levy on emissions, which puts the highest price in the world on emissions.

“We welcome the American initiatives because what they show is they are providing a means for power stations to be cleaned up,” Abbott said in an interview with ABC News 24’s Capital Hill program.

Even so, the U.S. program falls short of what scientists say is needed to protect the environment. The U.S. is on track to cut total emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. It hasn’t yet set out a target for 2030. The European Union has proposed the 28-nation bloc cut its emissions by 40 percent by 2030, doubling its earlier commitment for 20 percent by 2020.

“While a step forward, this rule simply doesn’t go far enough to put us on the right path,” Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, said in a statement. “The science on climate change has become clearer and more dire, requiring more aggressive action from the president.”

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