U.S. Submits Climate Pledge in Next Step to UN's Paris Talks

As promised, the U.S. turned in its emissions goals, but China and other large countries missed the UN's suggested deadline.

The United States aims to trim greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 to a level 26-28 percent below 1990 . Credit: Pete Souza/White House

Clap your hands if you believe in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

After all, it's faith in those documents, known as INDCs—detailed country-by-country pledges to reduce climate change—that are supposed to keep alive the glimmering hopes of a universal, binding treaty on climate change that the United Nations wants to conclude in Paris at the end of the year.

The United States submitted one of the latest INDCs on Tuesday to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In it, the U.S. promised to trim emissions in 2025 to a level 26-28 percent below 2005—no surprise, since President Obama trumpeted the promise months ago in Beijing.

The U.S. offering, handed in right on the UN's very malleable deadline for those "ready to do so," won a smattering of applause.

"This is a serious and achievable commitment," said Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute. "Impressive and ambitious," said Ken Kimmell of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The higher end of the 2025 target is credible, comprehensive and highly achievable," said Mindy Lubber of Ceres, which works with businesses and investors on climate change. They and others from the green camp were quick to add that more would have to be done, as the Obama administration also acknowledges.

For his part, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky's coal country, sat on his hands, and urged the rest of the world to pay no attention to Obama's plans.

"Our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal," he said, noting that some states and most Republicans in Congress oppose Obama's climate agenda, and that the courts have not ruled yet on some major challenges from the fossil-fuel camp.

But senior White House officials who briefed reporters on Tuesday said they were confident that the rules President Obama is imposing are legally defensible, and would last well beyond his time in office. The Paris treaty would not take force until 2020, when Obama's successor will already be up for re-election.

"Undoing the kind of regulation that we are putting in place is something that is very tough to do," said Todd Stern, the administration's top climate negotiator.

Among those regulations are:

  • Efficiency standards for household appliances, industrial equipment, and buildings;

  • Proposed new regulations on power plants that burn fossil fuels;

  • Executive orders cutting energy use in federal buildings;

  • Rules already in place or expected soon to increase the fuel efficiency, and hence cut emissions, of automobiles and trucks;

  • A wide variety of initiatives in the administration's Climate Action Plan that would encourage the use of renewable fuels, including solar and wind power.

Although the Obama administration favors the use of market-based pollution control schemes like those used by states such as California and some  in the Northeast, unlike some nations, it does not envision meeting its INDC targets through international carbon trading.

"At this time, the United States does not intend to utilize international market mechanisms to implement its 2025 target," its INDC stated.

However, as in other nations' submissions, the role of forests and agricultural land use as a factor in achieving the U.S. targets remains open to question. These could be among the knottiest issues as nations start reading each others' pledges closely and seeing how they all add up. Taking full account of carbon "sinks" such as forests can make it much easier to meet seemingly ambitious goals.

Once all the world's pledges come in, they are not expected to add up to enough pollution cuts to keep planetary warming within 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That's the international benchmark meant to avoid the worst climate risks from the resulting drought, fires, storms, floods, species loss, and diseases. Instead, the Paris pact is supposed to bend the curve downward, followed by years of further struggles against pollution.

On Twitter, Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC, called the INDC filings so far "a very good start," noting that the countries submitting pledges so far represent 40 percent of current greenhouse gas emissions. To get above 50 percent, China is the key player still missing.

As of Tuesday, submissions had arrived from the European Union as a whole, from Switzerland and Norway, from Mexico, from the United States, and from Russia.

Among developed countries, Australia, Canada and Japan were notable no-shows.

The European states have, so far, issued the most ambitious plans to continuously cut emissions. And they have a track record of living up to their past promises.

Mexico's, which calls for  emissions to peak in a few years and then turn down, is significant mainly because it is a large developing country—the first of them  to officially join in this round of cuts, which envisions every country taking part, not just rich industrial nations, as in the past.

As for Russia, its plan is the weakest of any filed so far, offering barely any progress beyond its past commitments—and saying that much will depend on how much carbon is counted as being stored in its forests.

A running scorecard of climate pledges from the past, as well as those arriving in the new INDCs, is here. A World Resources Institute map keeps tabs on the new INDCs as they arrive, as does the website of the UNFCCC.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that the U.S. pledged to cut emissions by 26-28 percent in 2025 below 1990 levels. It's below 2005 levels.

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