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Tip-Toeing Around The Elephant: US Mitigation And The COP

By / 12.13.2010

The US was in an awkward position in Cancun. The administration clearly wanted to show leadership, but it was hamstrung by an inability to deliver legislation with any tangible commitments. Since that seemed unlikely to change in the new Congress, US negotiators were left playing defense on the key issue — mitigation.

This makes movement in other areas (such as finance and forests) difficult, though that is in part due to US insistence on parallel, rather than serial, treatment of issues.

The result was sometimes bizarre diplomatic displays by the US, such as Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s address — essentially a remedial crash course in climate science. Secretary Chu did not take questions, one suspects because it would have been difficult to answer the obvious one — how does the US plan to meet the President’s 17%-cuts-by-2020 goal articulated last year?

Difficult, but not impossible. The awkward position in which US officials find themselves and the effects it has on US credibility and capability make the administration’s continued avoidance of serious public discussion of EPA carbon regulations puzzling. Research at RFF and elsewhere indicates that EPA regulations, either on the books already or likely in the near future, could achieve emissions reductions in the range of the President’s goal.

I’ve studied these regulations over the past year or so, and I’ve been repeatedly surprised by their likely impact. Vehicle fuel economy standards, new power plant permitting rules, and whatever the agency decides to do for existing sources can each make a significant emissions impact. Perhaps more interestingly, coming EPA regulations ostensibly aimed at other pollutants could have a big impact on carbon by pushing a substantial portion of coal plants into retirement, and replacing them with cleaner technology.

It’s not clear why the US administration and negotiators didn’t trumpeting these regulations as evidence of a commitment to cut emissions. It’s possible it is felt that a regulatory approach won’t be understood or taken seriously by the international community, but EPA regulations are far from the only complex issue on the table (just ask your local climate finance expert for a quick summary if you suspect otherwise). And other countries are undoubtedly familiar with a regulatory approach — for many it is their preferred domestic environmental policy. One thing is certain, though — the best way to ensure that the international community (and the American public) fails to understand or appreciate the EPA’s capabilities is for the administration and its negotiators to refuse to explain them.

Another possibility is that the administration worries that hyping EPA’s powers is politically dangerous. The agency is more effective, this argument goes, if it can operate quietly and at its own pace. To put it more directly, to speak of regulation is to destroy it — perhaps because Congress would respond by seeking to cripple the agency.

But the President should not forget that his party still controls the Senate, and that he still wields the veto pen. Even if the President resigned himself to giving up EPA powers (or delaying them) as part of a compromise, it would surely be in his interest to say how strong these powers are, thus increasing their value in any bargain.

Moreover, the argument that regulatory emissions cuts are more effective if kept quiet contradicts what is arguably the central dogma of US foreign climate policy — that US action is valuable not for its small contribution to global goals, but as a tool for unlocking negotiations and prompting action elsewhere. If US negotiators can’t or won’t talk about the best policy tool the US currently has, they can’t do their jobs. This makes the long term likelihood of a meaningful international agreement much smaller.

EPA regulation is not the first, best option for US climate policy; it is above all likely to be more costly over the long run than a pricing mechanism. But neither this admission, nor the fact that EPA regulations are legally required, are good reasons not to forcefully and frequently articulate their emissions benefits. Perhaps we as a country should be embarrassed that we cannot adopt a national climate policy that more closely approaches the ideal in terms of both costs and benefits. But the administration should not let any embarrassment about what the country cannot currently do prevent them from talking about what it can.

As my colleague Dallas Burtraw pointed out in his talk here this week, US credibility on climate requires that the administration be a lot bolder — not by making new commitments that it lacks the domestic powers to back up, but simply by publicly, loudly, and clearly saying what it can and will do with the tools it already has.

This article is cross-posted at Weathervane