China and other nations are demanding answers from the Trump administration about how the United States will meet its short-term climate change goal under the Paris treaty process, as it abandons the Obama-era policies at the heart of its pledge.
The questions, blunt by diplomatic standards, are being posed by key players in the United Nations climate talks, and they come just as the White House confronts a politically charged decision over whether to stay in the Paris climate agreement.
Some in the administration favor keeping President Donald Trump's campaign promise to "cancel" the 2015 accord and others are arguing to keep what they call "a seat at the table." A White House meeting to discuss that issue was scheduled for Tuesday, but then canceled.
Other countries, however, are wary of the administration's waffling on the nation's commitments.
Under a system of scrutiny and transparency established at the insistence of the U.S. to keep countries accountable for their commitments, the Obama administration in January submitted a report on its progress toward its 2020 targets. This included finalizing the federal Clean Power Plan, which would reduce power plant emissions, as well as funding for research and development of clean energy technologies. Those policies are now targeted for dismantling under Trump.
Now that report, called the Biennial Review, is being questioned by several countries intent on holding the Trump administration to account.
"I think countries see this as an opportunity to ferret the new administration's intentions and test the United States' commitment to full transparency going forward," said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), a policy institute in Washington. "These are all legitimate and sensible questions in light of a change in government and a shift in policy."
The questions were submitted to the UN by China, Brazil, Japan, the United Kingdom and the European Union in February and published online. They probe how Trump's government plans to meet a short-term goal of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. (Under its Paris Agreement pledge, the U.S. further committed to cutting emissions up to 28 percent by 2025.)
The queries are an early sign that tense negotiations lie ahead if the U.S. does not quit the climate talks outright. They reflect widespread concerns that Trump's plans to roll back climate policy will make it impossible for the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as promised. The U.S. is the second-largest carbon polluter, surpassed only recently by China.
China's questions were particularly pointed, mentioning Trump by name and noting that he "is not supportive of President Obama's Climate Actions plan."
China said it would now be "even more challenging" for the U.S. to meet its initial targets "purely through domestic actions."
"Does the U.S. have any plan[s] or preliminary thoughts on using [an] international market mechanism to accommodate recent changes?" the Chinese wondered. "If still not, what additional measure will the U.S. consider to take to achieve the 2020 target?"
China, currently installing a new emissions trading scheme, might benefit from the international trading of credits as it struggles to bring its own emissions under control, so this question could be read as a bargaining chip.
In a follow-up question, China demanded to know what approaches the U.S. will take if the Clean Power Plan is canceled.
The United Kingdom weighed in to ask if the administration had assessed the climate implications of Trump's new policies.
This kind of round-robin critique was launched in 2011 as a way for nations to hold each other accountable and to foster transparency. This process inspired a key element to enforcing the Paris treaty, where each nation's commitments are voluntary, but adherence to them is considered mandatory.
The U.S. is supposed to respond to these questions by the end of April. It could face additional questions at the climate meeting next month in Bonn, Germany. The U.S. is one of 18 countries currently undergoing this kind of review.
"This is exactly what the transparency process is supposed to deliver," said Alex Hanafi, a climate negotiations expert at the Environmental Defense Fund. "It's a good indication that countries are taking these review processes and the opportunities they provide for spotlighting challenging issues."