2016: Decision Year for US and Global Climate Change Commitments?

Camilla Rogers, 25 April 2016

Under Obama’s leadership, 2015 saw two major developments in the US’ national commitments to combat climate change. First, in August, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued the US’ first national carbon dioxide reduction rule – the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which requires a 32% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fired power units by 2030. Second, at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, the US committed to cut its emissions by 26-28% by 2025. The Obama Administration intended to largely rely on the CPP – due to begin implementation this year – to achieve the Paris Agreement.

However, 2016 has seen both these commitments come under serious threat. In February, the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 for a stay on implementation of the CPP while it undergoes a legal challenge by 26 states – this was both an unprecedented and unexpected move. Simultaneously, the US national presidential primaries are underway, and not one of the Republican candidates have stated support for global or national climate change efforts – in fact, most are in open opposition and deny that man-made climate change exists. It is widely believed that if a Republican wins the White House, both the CPP and perhaps also the US’ Paris Commitments will come undone.

Both these developments have serious potential global consequences, as without the US commitments the entire Paris Agreement could well unravel with implications for global growth of renewable energy infrastructure. This was the first accord to commit every country to combat climate change, and Obama used the CPP to persuade major developing countries (especially China and India) to make carbon reduction commitments. If the US is seen to renege on this deal, other countries may well pull out. When the US backed out of the Kyoto agreement under George Bush’ presidency, this discredited the US’ commitment to global climate change and created a major setback to global negotiations for many years.

To further complicate matters, both the CPP and ultimately the Paris Agreement may hinge on the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice. This new justice will replace the late Justice Scalia, a conservative, Republican nominated judge who passed away in late-February after voting for the CPP stay. With the Supreme Court essentially split 4-4 along Party lines, who is appointed as the 9th justice will surely influence the ultimate decision of the Court in the context of current legal challenges against the CPP. However, the Republican-led Senate are refusing to consider the recent nomination of moderate judge Merrick Garland put forward by Obama, insisting that a new justice should not be confirmed until after the November 2016 Presidential Election.

Clearly, 2016 is going to be a key decision year for US and global climate change commitments, with significant potential implications for the global renewable energy industry. Watch this space…

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