Obama’s climate initiatives under threat

He introduced emission reductions at home and ensured that the world fell in line at Paris. Trump could scupper these gains

As he steps out of the White House free of the cares of office, Barack Obama may feel highly satisfied with his pro-climate achievements and at the same time a little apprehensive over their durability.

Ever since the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, the US attitude to measures aimed at curbing emissions of greenhouse gases had been one of obduracy. The Kyoto Protocol (1998) that applied only to developed countries could not take off at all due.

This was due to the US stand to keep out of it on the ground that the country would not accept any emission control regime imposed from outside, particularly one that did not apply to major emerging powers like China and India. Things came to a sorry pass at the 13th Conference of Parties to the Convention (COP 13) in Bali in 2007 when the Chief US delegate was booed out of the plenary for his obstructionism.

Change of tack

When he first assumed office in January 2009, President Obama had the unenviable task of getting over internal reservations on climate control. His first year in office saw a legislative proposal (the Waxman- Markey Bill) on industrial emission reductions being passed by the House of Representatives but not being placed before the Senate for approval. That must have convinced him of the futility of any move to garner internal support without a global agreement in place that roped in the BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa). With such an agreement, he felt he could convince the American public and its Congressional representatives of the imperative to have appropriate legislations enacted by the Congress.

History has much to offer to one who cares to read and heed it. Obama proceeded to build on the formulation known as the Bali Action Plan worked out at the very Conference in which the US delegate was humiliated. At his debut in the international climate arena in 2009 in Copenhagen (COP 15), he took everyone by surprise when he put forward a proposal before a select gathering of EU leaders, China and India that allowed the Parties to set their own targets keeping in mind the urgent need to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius in this century.

Game-changing pacts

The spirit of voluntariness that marked the formulation called the Copenhagen Accord was well received by the members present. As for others, though they spurned the proposal initially, they accepted it later by communicating the measures they would take. Subsequent discussions and negotiations came to be based entirely on voluntariness of policies and action, a development that satisfied all and was disputed by none.

US presence and participation came to dominate all climate negotiations since 2009. Concurrently, Obama got himself engaged in winning over China and India through visits to their capitals and signing agreements on climate action and cooperation. The agreement with China, in particular, was a game-changer. With the two Asian powers China and India by his side and a softened Brazil and South Africa in support, he could approach Paris with the confidence that he could manoeuvre the proceedings to the advantage of the US.

In Paris, the US could set its own targets and timeframes; disown responsibility for past actions that led to global warming and refuse compensation to poor nations for the misery already caused to them. Most importantly, major emerging industrial powers were made to commit themselves to emission mitigation, a demand they had been resisting for long.

Checkmating Trump

Once Paris was over, President Obama proceeded to announce US ratification of the Agreement without a Congressional nod by invoking his Presidential authority. His contention was that the deal was not a new treaty but only an addendum to the already approved UNFCCC and did not require fresh Congressional advice. He calculated quite rightly that an exit from the treaty would require at least four years, a period long enough to deter any thought of secession by a possible Republican successor.

Second, Obama, invoking sparsely used legislation, proceeded to checkmate the announcements of the Republican candidate Donald Trump in his election campaign to permit drilling for oil and gas off-shore and onshore.

Drilling concessions granted in the Arctic already were rescinded. To thwart exploitation of shale and tar sands for oil and gas in neighbouring Canada, he had already withheld permission for pipeline transportation of these products to US refineries for processing. Prior to all these moves, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had set limits on emissions from coal-based power plants, a move currently facing legal challenge.

With the above protective measures in place, Obama may feel secure of his place in climate history. But results of the US Presidential and Congressional elections cast doubt over his smugness. The Republican President-elect, Trump, is a climate sceptic and a not too great supporter of the UN. Peeved by his predecessor’s preemptive strikes, he would be keen to blunt their edge in more ways than one. He may withhold or reduce drastically US contributions to the Green Climate Fund.

Without sizeable contributions from the US, the Fund would be hobbled in its activities. He may also encourage legal challenge to measures introduced by his predecessor.

In both the Houses of the Congress, Republicans have managed to retain their majority. Trump’s nominees to key offices in his administration are known to share his scepticism of global warming and man’s role in it. They are as keen as he is to redeem his campaign promises to make the US self-sufficient in energy, revitalise the economy and create jobs by the thousands to the American people. The “Trump Bump”, as a financial analyst calls it, may trump President Obama’s climate legacy.

The writer is former secretary to the union environment ministry

Published on January 12, 2017
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