US sinks to new low in climate change ambition

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 10.09.47 PMIn 2015, the United States submitted an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) that committed the country to doing its fair share to keep the global temperature from increasing beyond “well below 2C.” In it, the US specifically promised that it “intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.” This INDC became a binding international treaty commitment on November 4, 2016, when the Paris Agreement entered into force.  Under Article 4.2, the US agreed that it “shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures, with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions.” 177 of the 181 Paris Agreement Parties that have submitted their own NDCs relied on the United States’ promise when preparing, communicating, and maintaining their nationally determined contributions.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries like the US agreed, in Article 4.9, that “[e]ach Party shall communicate a nationally determined contribution every five years in accordance with decision. In addition, under Article 4.3, each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution “will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition.” Article 4.11 highlights that a Party “may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution with a view to enhancing its level of ambition.” Yet no Paris Agreement article permits NDC adjustments of lower ambition.

The Trump Administration’s efforts not to maintain adequate national laws and policies to achieve the current US NDC hit an new low last week. That’s when the Washington Post broke the story of a “startling assumption” located “deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement”: “On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous seven degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century.” According to the IPCC, this kind of warming is beyond human history records and would imperil food security and drinking water sources, and lead to sea level rise that wipe out most coastal cities.

tailpipeWhile this admission is scary enough, the Washington Post noted that how the Trump Administration was using it was even scarier.  “[T]he administration did not offer this dire forecast, premised on the idea that the world will fail to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, as part of an argument to combat climate change. Just the opposite: The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed.”  Essentially the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) drew this conclusion to justify the decision to freeze Obama-era federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020. The logic is that global temperature will increase nearly 3.5C above the average temperature between 1986 and 2005 regardless of whether Obama-era tailpipe standards take effect or are frozen for six years – so why bother?

No ambition at all.