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Facilitating International Climate Action through President Obama's Climate Action Plan

Jake Schmidt

Posted June 27, 2013

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Melanie Blanding for NRDCIn unveiling the U.S. National Climate Action Plan, President Obama signaled two important things that will help international efforts to address climate change – he signaled that the U.S will act at home to reduce its pollution and it will take steps to help secure strong international action. The most important thing that the U.S. can do to facilitate international action is to take significant steps to curb U.S. climate pollution. Implementation of this plan will mark an important milestone in that direction. At the same time, the U.S. can and must help secure strong global action by using all the available tools to spur action in key countries and help secure a new international agreement in 2015. This action plan marks a critical turning point for the U.S. as the President has outlined new actions, reinforced existing efforts, and committed to redouble international efforts.

So let’s look at each aspect of the plan in a bit more detail.

Acting at home to cut U.S. global warming pollution. The president set a clear benchmark for his administration – make sure that the measures in the plan add up to reducing total greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 – as my colleague highlighted. Strong action across key sectors would put the U.S. on track to meet this target as the World Resources Institute found. Most importantly President Obama issued a memorandum with a specific schedule to make sure that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalizes carbon pollution standards for power plants before he leaves office. With America’s power plants accounting for 40 percent of U.S. carbon pollution, the steps EPA takes under existing law will go a long way towards meeting the target for U.S. emissions that the President outlined at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. NRDC outlined a specific proposal that would cut U.S. power sector carbon pollution 26 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 and 34 percent by 2025.

The U.S. national action plan also directs the U.S. government to set additional appliance efficiency standards, reduce building energy use, adopt additional efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles, and reduce methane emissions from a variety of sources. The action plan includes a clear signal that the U.S. is going to reduce the growth of the “super greenhouse gas”  called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) through the Clean Air Act Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program (as my colleague discussed). NRDC and other groups have petitioned EPA that this  program creates an “in with the new, out with the old” policy where the current refrigerants used in air conditioners and refrigerators are replaced with refrigerants that are less potent at causing climate change. And the President also signaled that he won’t greenlight the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline if it increases emissions – which it definitely will.

The plan is an important direction towards meeting the national emissions reduction goal as each of the measures in the plan will be implemented under existing U.S. law, putting the U.S. on track to meet the target that the President committed to in Copenhagen.

Spurring International Action. The plan also outlines that the U.S. will use a variety of tools to help implement international action to address climate change. As President Obama said: “We can't stand on the sidelines. We've got a unique responsibility.” So the action plan outlines several specific new steps including:

  • An end to public financing of coal plants overseas. U.S. public funding has recently supported coal projects through the Export-Import Bank (EX-IM), the World Bank Group, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), African Development Bank (AfDB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD). The World Bank Group has invested over $5 billion in coal lending over the past 5 years, according to data compiled by Oil Change International**. EX-IM funding has supported over $7 billion in coal projects over the past five years.  EBRD, AfDB, and ADB have funded $4.3 billion in coal projects over the past 5 years. So the commitment from the President to end public financing for new coal plants overseas that don’t capture their carbon is an important new policy. And hopefully he’ll be able to secure similar commitments from other developed countries that support coal projects with public financing.
  • Reinforced commitment to work with major companies and countries to go “deforestation-free” in their supply chain. A new partnership between major companies and governments – the Tropical Forest Alliance – could make a major dent in deforestation by helping companies and countries go “deforestation-free” in their supply chain as leading groups recently pointed out. Strong implementation of this partnership could help curb deforestation which accounts for around 15 percent of global emissions.
  • Negotiating free trade in environmental goods and services, such as renewable energy and energy efficient technologies. The 21 member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) agreed to phase-out trade barriers to clean energy technologies. Effective implementation of this commitment could help countries around the world continue to speed up the deployment of renewable energy – a market that totaled $244 billion last year.
  • Implementing a global approach to address aviation’s carbon pollution. The aviation sector accounts for over two percent of the world’s carbon pollution and those emissions are projected to almost double by 2030. While the action plan is unfortunately vague on what the Administration will do to reduce aviation’s pollution, they’ll have a chance this September to secure a global market-based measure to reduce aviation’s carbon pollution (an approach recently endorsed by the world’s airlines).

And the plan reinforces a number of positive initiatives that are ongoing including U.S. international climate finance, bilateral efforts with important countries such as China and India, reducing short-lived climate forcers like dirty diesel, spurring clean energy investments in developing countries, support for the most vulnerable countries to become more resilient to climate change, phasing-out fossil fuel subsidies, and phasing-down “super greenhouse gases” under the Montreal Protocol.

Negotiating a Strong International Agreement. Countries agreed to negotiate a new legal agreement in 2015 that would include commitments from all countries. This agreement comes at a critical time in efforts to address climate change, so it is essential that the U.S. constructively help negotiate and implement a strong agreement. It won’t be easy and it won’t be the last time that world leaders will have to commit to international actions to address climate change, but there are a lot of reasons to believe that countries can take the necessary step when they meet in December 2015.

I hope President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and the whole U.S. team live up to President Obama’s commitment that: “my administration will redouble our efforts to engage our international partners in reaching a new global agreement to reduce carbon pollution through concrete action.“   


The President’s commitment to have the U.S. act at home and abroad comes at a critical time in global efforts to address climate change. This plan marks an important turning point as it will significantly cut U.S. climate pollution and help spur global action using a variety of tools.

As President Obama said (video): “…the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late.”

The U.S. can and must act at home and abroad to address climate change before it is too late.


* Photo: Climate rally in front of the White House, taken by Melanie Blanding for NRDC.

** Oil Change International has a great website called Shift the Subsidies which tracks past funding from these institutions. According to this coal projected funding from the International Financial Institutions is as follows: World Bank Group ($5.5 billion), African Development Bank ($2.8 billion), Asian Development Bank ($790 million), and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development ($663 million).

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Saleemul huqJun 27 2013 03:44 PM

Dear Jake,
I fully appreciate the significantly different tone as well as the number of measures that the current President of the United States of America has articulated in his recent speech, and wholeheartedly endorse your praise of him for his words and proposed actions.
I have no doubt that President Obama is sincere and wants to deal with the issue (unlike his predecessor).
However, from where I sit in Bangladesh, I am afraid his words are simply too little too late!
Let me give a few examples why.
Firstly while the United States of America , being both the richest country in the world and its biggest emitter of greenhouse gases refused to join the global Kyoto Treaty, and took very little real actions to reduce emissions over the last decade and a half, the world has emitted Giga tons of GHGs and the concentration in the atmosphere has passed 400 ppm.
In other words we have moved inexorably towards a much warmer world and we are already, arguably, seeing the manifestations of this in stronger and more frequent cyclones, hurricanes, floods and droughts and heat waves across the world.
So we have a lost almost two decades as the US has stayed disengaged.

Secondly, the speech President Obama made this week, was one he himself could have made in January 2009 immediately after he was elected for his first term. He wasted an entire term trying to engage with Congress and now has realised that he needs to move ahead without them. He could have done this five years ago.

Thirdly, and finally, the United States of America has completely ignored most of the UNFCCC adaptation funds set up to help the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries adapt to todays's climate impacts (not tomorrow's). The amounts his administration have given recently to the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Fund are trivial compared to both the scale of the problem as well as what other , much smaller developed countries, have provided. The US has so far refused to make any contribution to the Adaptation Fund, which is one of the best adaptation funds. On this score alone the United States , far from showing leadership, is perhaps the first in showing "laggardship"!
So I cannot join you in congratulating your president for his pronouncements and actions, as my country faces the impacts of climate change as we speak, but rather please spur him to take much greater actions commensurate with both his lofty rhetoric as well as the scale of the problem.
With warm regards


Dan PangburnJun 28 2013 08:56 AM

CO2 increase from 1800 to 2001 was 89.5 ppmv (parts per million by volume). The atmospheric carbon dioxide level has now increased since 2001 by 25.46 ppmv (an amount equal to 28.4% of the increase that took place from 1800 to 2001) (1800, 281.6 ppmv; 2001, 371.13 ppmv; May, 2013, 396.59 ppmv).

The average global temperature trend since 2001 is flat.

Rationalize that the temperature increase to 2001 was caused by a CO2 increase of 89.5 ppmv but that 25.46 ppmv additional CO2 increase had no effect on the average global temperature trend after 2001.

A simple equation at calculates average global temperatures since they have been accurately measured world wide (about 1895) with an accuracy of 90%, irrespective of whether the influence of CO2 is included or not. The equation uses a single external forcing, a proxy that is the time-integral of sunspot numbers. A graph is included which shows the calculated temperature anomaly trajectory overlaid on measurements.

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