Trumping Trump on Climate Change

Posted on July 25, 2017 by Dan Esty

President Donald Trump’s decision to back away from the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and other policies to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in fulfillment of America’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement might be seen as bad news for the global environment.  And it is.  But the news is not quite as bad as many fear.  Even if the President’s actions slow progress toward the U.S. “nationally determined contribution” to the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement – a cut of 26-28 percent by 2030 – that will not stop the overall downward trend in GHG emissions for several important reasons. 

First, American Presidents have limited executive authority, meaning that a number of the climate change policies put in place by President Obama cannot be reversed with a stroke of President Trump’s pen.  Second, the shift away from coal as America’s electricity generation fuel of choice will continue – driven by prior regulatory requirements and the economics of the energy marketplace.  Third, many critical decisions that shape the carbon footprint of a society are made not by presidents and prime ministers but by mayors, governors (or other sub-national elected officials), and corporate leaders.

President Trump’s March 28 Executive Order directs his EPA Administrator to “review” the prior administration’s Clean Power Plan and “as soon as practicable, suspend, revise, or rescind” it.  But this is not a simple process.  The Clean Power Plan represents a regulatory strategy for implementing a Clean Air Act obligation to control emissions from any air pollutant found to “endanger public health and public welfare.”  The Supreme Court confirmed in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) that this obligation is not discretionary with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Thus, the Trump EPA can change the strategy for responding to greenhouse gases but cannot walk away from its obligation to control them unless it reverses the “endangerment” finding issued by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2009.  To undo this prior conclusion, current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would need to establish a new scientific foundation that would justify a different policy conclusion.  Given the overwhelming scientific consensus that the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere threatens to produce various harmful effects – including sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other windstorms, changed rainfall patterns, as well as more frequent droughts, floods, and forest fires – such an effort would be quickly challenged in any number of courts and almost certainly overturned.  Indeed, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that the build-up of GHG emissions in the atmosphere is a problem, a “non-endangerment” conclusion would be an almost paradigmatic example of an “arbitrary and capricious” regulatory action.  EPA will, therefore, almost certainly choose to revise the Clean Power Plan rather than dump it altogether. 

In introducing his climate change executive order, President Trump promised that his actions would bring back American coal production and power generation.  No such thing will happen.  Hundreds of U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shut down in the past decade – most in response to the Obama Administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.  These plants will not be reopening.

Not only have coal-burning power plants been the target of numerous regulatory restrictions, they also now face stiff competition from cleaner-burning and cheaper natural gas power generation as well as rapidly expanding renewable power production.  Nothing President Trump has done will reverse these trends.  Indeed, given the momentum toward a clean energy future and the prospects that a future president will redirect the Trump climate change policies and restore the U.S. commitment to lower greenhouse gas emissions, no utility is going to invest in new coal-fired power plants, and many power generators will proceed with planned retirements of existing coal units.  Simply put, the President’s shifting of gears on climate change policy does not over-ride the broader economic logic for movement toward cleaner and cheaper energy options.

In the face of the President’s disinterest in the Paris Agreement in particular and his hostility toward environmental regulation more broadly, leadership and political support for climate change action in the United States has shifted out of Washington.  Of particular note, more than 200 mayors, 10 governors, and nearly 1700 business leaders have formed a coalition called America’s Pledge that aims to ensure that the U.S. emissions reduction commitment is fulfilled.  Led by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the participants in America’s Pledge are pushing forward with climate action plans at the city, state, and corporate scales. 

Some of these leaders, moreover, have expressed interest in formally “signing” the 2015 Paris Agreement if the United States ends up withdrawing.  While there are constitutional limits to what sub-national jurisdictions can do in the international realm, legal work is underway to find a mechanism that would allow these mayors, governors, and CEOs to make a commitment to the goals of the Paris Agreement “to the full extent of their authority.”

The breadth and depth of these non-federal-government climate change initiatives means that American greenhouse gas emissions will continue to decrease regardless of what energy policies the Trump Administration puts forward.  In fact, one of the critical features of the climate change strategy that the world community agreed upon in Paris in 2015 was a shift from a top-down approach that relied upon national government actions to a bottom-up game plan for emissions reductions that called upon a much wider array of actors to join the effort to promote energy efficiency and a shift toward renewable power.

As it turns out, presidents and prime ministers don’t have that much say over the day-to-day decisions that determine the carbon footprints of their societies.  Mayors, governors, and CEOs are really the ones who make the critical choices about transportation options, housing and development patterns, product and production strategies, technology and infrastructure investments, and other decisions that determine the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, while President Trump can take the United States out of a leadership role in the global effort to combat climate change, he will not be able to reverse the domestic momentum for action on climate change.  His policies may slow the pace of U.S. emissions reductions, but movement toward a decarbonized energy future will continue.

FINDING LEGAL PATHWAYS TO DEEP DECARBONIZATION IN THE UNITED STATES

Posted on July 21, 2016 by John Dernbach

On December 12, 2015, in Paris, France, the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—a total of 196 countries—unanimously agreed to a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of this century.  For the United States, the technical and logistical challenge of achieving the goal of the Paris Agreement (as it is called) is enormous, but so is the legal challenge.

The U.S. short-term emissions reduction objective, stated in a submission made in the run-up to the Paris conference, is “to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26%–28% below its 2005 level in 2025.”  This objective, the U.S. says, “is consistent with a straight line emission reduction pathway from 2020 to deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80% or more by 2050.”   Achieving the short-term goal depends on the outcome of the presidential election as well as litigation involving the Clean Power Plan.  And there was, until recently, no roadmap for deep U.S. reductions by 2050. 

The absence of long-term analysis, in the U.S. and other countries, is being filled by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, which is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.  It is based on the work of research teams in 16 countries that are responsible for 74 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions--Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  DDPP says in a report synthesizing the findings of the project to date that most of these countries “had never developed pathways consistent with a global 2°C limit, nor were they actively considering this question.”   (The purpose of the Climate Change Convention is to keep the increase in global temperatures from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions below a “dangerous” level.  That level is widely regarded as 2°C, or 3.6 °F, above pre-industrial levels, although the Paris Agreement seeks to keep the increase “well below” that level.  The temperature increase to date is already about 0.9 °C above 1880 levels, when temperatures were first recorded.)

DDPP has conducted a technical analysis and policy analysis of pathways to deep decarbonization for the United States.  These reports, prepared by E3 (an energy consulting firm), the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, appear to be the most detailed studies of how to achieve deep reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  

Perhaps the DDPP’s most important finding “is that it is technically feasible for the U.S. to reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions from fossil fuel combustion” by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050, which is “an order of magnitude decrease in per capita emissions compared to 2010.”  If the U.S. did that, it could reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  

Enormous changes would be required in the U.S. energy system to make those reductions happen.  Because it is difficult to decarbonize gasoline and liquid fuels, the researchers said, meeting the 2050 objective would require almost complete decarbonization of electricity and, among other things, switching a “large share” of end uses that require gasoline and liquid fuels over to electricity (such as electric cars).  It would also be necessary to produce fuel from electricity itself, they said, citing the production of hydrogen from hydrolysis as an example. 

Decarbonizing electricity and producing fuel from electricity itself would double electricity generation but reduce its carbon intensity to 3% to 10% of current levels, requiring a vast increase in either renewable energy (as much as “2,500 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar generation (30 times present capacity))” or carbon capture and sequestration.  The average fuel economy for light duty vehicles such as cars would need to be over 100 miles per gallon, and these vehicles would need to be fueled almost entirely by electricity and hydrogen.  

The challenge of translating these technical and policy pathways into a workable legal framework is considerable.  Assuming, for example, that the U.S. can achieve 54.5 miles per gallon as a fleet-wide average for new vehicles by 2025, as the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard requires, how does the U.S. achieve a fleet-wide average of more than 100 miles per gallon for all vehicles by 2050? As DDPP explains, “[t]his would require the deployment of roughly 300 million alternative fuel vehicles by 2050.”  A similar conundrum exists in reliance on renewable energy sources: what legal changes are needed to guide the development of the grid so that it can continue to be reliable while it accommodates a vast increase in intermittent electricity sources such as solar and wind energy?

Michael Gerrard, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, and I have begun work on an edited volume that will identify and analyze a wide variety of legal pathways to decarbonization in the United States, based on these reports.  We have assembled an excellent team of legal scholars and practitioners and are aiming for publication in 2017.  We hope to inspire similar efforts in other countries.  

An essential part of the decarbonization challenge is proposing, analyzing, and comparing various legal decarbonization pathways in each individual country, including the U.S.  In the face of a daunting challenge, there exists a real possibility that lawyers can help improve human quality of life throughout the world by facilitating the creation of a legal framework that accommodates zero-carbon development.

Paris to Earth: Act Locally Within a Global Framework

Posted on December 15, 2015 by John Dernbach

Paris—In the run-up to the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention, a short humorous video, “Earth to Paris,” was widely viewed.  It was a call to delegates for take serious action on climate change at the conference.

The Paris Agreement is being hailed as an historic breakthrough by political leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and the business community. It represents the first time since the Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature in 1992 that all 196 parties have agreed to take  actions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  The only prior agreement even remotely comparable to the Paris Agreement—the Kyoto Protocol—limited only developed country emissions.

Not only was there unanimous approval of this agreement—a remarkable feat in itself—but its overall goal is ambitious. Countries agreed to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.”  They also agreed to “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”  The parties thus increased somewhat the level of ambition from limiting warming to 2 °C, which had been the consensus objective.

They also agreed to “aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter.” That, too, is new.

And unlike Kyoto, this agreement puts primary responsibility for what happens in particular countries where it has always been—with the countries themselves. This is through the mechanism of nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—public commitments that nearly all countries made prior to Paris to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to some extent.  The Paris agreement affirmed those agreements and made them central to the global climate change effort.

But what also sets the Paris Agreement apart—and will ultimately determine whether humanity averts or limits the worst effects of climate change—are processes that the agreement puts in place to periodically increase national ambition, assist countries in meeting their objectives, share information, and ensure methodological consistency in accounting for emissions reductions. These processes should greatly enhance the likelihood that the Paris Agreement will actually work.

Processes in the Paris Agreement that embody this approach include the following:

  • Beginning in 2020, and every five years afterwards, each country is to “communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve.” These, of course, are in addition to those that countries already submitted. Each “successive nationally determined contribution” is to “represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition.”
  • While financial assistance to developing countries has always been part of the international framework to address climate change, developed countries agreed to increase their level of financial support from previous levels by a nonspecific amount. Developed countries also agreed to communicate “indicative quantitative and qualitative information” about their financial support to developing countries, including projected future levels of public finance.
  • Beginning in 2023, and every five years afterwards, the conference of the parties is to “take stock of the implementation of this Agreement to assess the collective progress towards achieving” its purpose. The outcome of this “global stocktake” is to “inform Parties in updating and enhancing, in a nationally determined manner,” including enhanced “international cooperation for climate action.”
  • The agreement creates “an enhanced transparency framework for action and support.” This framework is partly to understand what NDCs actually mean and achieve. NDCs from different countries use different assumptions and baselines, and enhancing their comparability is essential. This transparency framework is also to better understand what financial contributions developed countries are actually making to developing countries.
  • Recognizing that “[a]ccelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long-term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development,” the agreement creates a Technology Mechanism. The purpose of the mechanism is to facilitate technology development and the transfer of technology to developing countries. The “global stocktake” is to consider this and other efforts to support “technology development and transfer for developing country Parties.”

These processes are different from the kind of obligations we are used to in environmental law–obligations, for example, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount by a certain date.  Rather, these processes may be understood in terms of reflexive law and governance. Reflexive approaches are not substantive rules: they improve the capacity of governmental institutions and other entities to learn about themselves and their actions.  Reflexive approaches also stimulate them to use this information to make appropriate changes.  They create spurs to action.

In the context of the Paris agreement, reflexive governance seems intended to perform at least four key tasks. First, it should encourage or prod governments to be more ambitious over time, without being prescriptive about what they should do.  This is true not only of emissions reductions but also, for developed countries, of their efforts to provide financial and technological resources to developing countries.  Second, it will provide information to governments and others about what other governments are actually doing, as well information about the effectiveness and impacts of particular laws and policies.  This information can then be used to modify those laws and policies.   Third, because this information will be public, it means that governments are more likely to honestly and openly share what they are doing, and be responsive to the views of nongovernmental organizations and businesses as well as the public in general.

Finally, there are few areas in law and policy in which the playing field is changing faster than in climate change.   The changes are not just new agreements, but also the rapid upscaling of renewable energy as its price drops, the wide variety of international coalitions working to accelerate greenhouse gas emission reductions in particular areas or sectors, changes in the emissions profiles of China and India over the past decade, improvements in our understanding of the science, and the greater availability of private finance.  The Kyoto Protocol, hailed as an advance when approved in 1997, looks like a relic less than 20 years later.

These and other processes in the Paris Agreement are more likely to survive, accommodate, and address this shifting landscape in the years ahead.  One could wish for a stronger agreement, but these processes are likely to make the global partnership to address climate change stronger and more effective over time. And they are particularly likely to do so because every country agreed to the ambitious goals toward which they are aimed.

 

Orginially posted on www.johndernbach.com