Beyond Copenhagen

How Washington Can Bolster a Stronger Climate Deal

Steam rising from a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming, March 2014. (Jim Urquhart / Courtesy Reuters)

On June 2, U.S. President Barack Obama proposed the country’s first-ever federal regulation on greenhouse gas pollution resulting from existing power plants. The rule, intended to cut carbon emissions from the power sector to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, is an indispensable piece of the administration’s climate policy, which it has painstakingly assembled since a comprehensive energy and climate bill collapsed in the Senate in mid-2010.

Predictably, Obama’s proposal set off a firestorm of political hyperbole. The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, decried it as a “dagger in the heart of the middle class,” and John Boehner, speaker of the House, called it “a sucker punch for families everywhere.” In fact, there is much about the rule to celebrate, including the notion that for the first time it puts the United States on track to meet its international commitment, made in 2009 as part of the Copenhagen Accord, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

The Copenhagen climate conference, often remembered more for heated arguments and a chaotic conclusion than for what it achieved, was actually a turning point in international climate talks. For the first time, all major polluting states -- developed and developing -- agreed to stem their emissions. This was no small victory, and it is far from secure, as China, India, and other major emerging economies remain keen to restore and maximize the differences between their responsibilities and those of developed countries in the climate negotiations.

Fortunately, thanks to the newly proposed pollution rule and other polices, the United States is finally on a path to meeting its own Copenhagen emission reduction commitments. Its increased global credibility comes at the perfect time: At the end of next year, global leaders will convene in Paris to conclude the next major round of climate negotiations, where the United States can use its newfound clout to secure the gains of the Copenhagen agreement and reach a stronger, more durable deal.

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