What the Paris Agreement means for Climate Policy in the US


In his support of, in and for Paris, President Obama has emerged as the first real “Climate President” of the United States. Nevertheless, whether or not his country and predecessor will remain faithful to this legacy remains uncertain.

For President Obama and his administration, the Paris Climate Agreement is a major international success. Indeed, the ability to bring together the major emitters and the rest of the international community was largely due to the American diplomatic prowess. After the fiasco in Copenhagen in 2009, President Obama made an active effort to bilaterally engage with the biggest emitters, such as China and Brazil. It was through agreements like these, that the US was able to build international trust ahead of the Paris negotiations. As such, the US has transformed from being a climate bystander to climate leader over the past few years. In Paris, it joined the so-called “high ambition coalition,” which was instrumental in reaching the Paris Agreement because it brought together over 100 developing, developed and emerging economies.

At the same time, the administration, the American climate NGOs and policy actors know that Paris is only the beginning of what lies ahead. In the coming years, it will be crucial that the US both honor its national emissions reduction promises, and preserve the international political momentum needed to combat climate change. This requires, above all, that the low-carbon agenda adopted in Paris be seen as a domestic, foreign policy and economic opportunity. Three key questions determine whether or not this will be the case.

How will the Paris Agreement influence the 2016 American presidential elections – especially among the Republicans?

As the 2016 election approaches, the climate and energy policies of the Obama administration will undoubtedly come under fire. Two of the Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley, responded positively to the break-through in Paris. However, Bernie Sanders, the far-left Democratic Party candidate, argued that the agreement was not ambitious enough.

In the days following the agreement, Republican contenders have remained surprisingly silent. Their apparent indifference can be explained by two factors: First and foremost, none of the Republican candidates wants to grant President Obama any sort of international recognition. At the same time, however, condemning the climate agreement altogether would likely scare away many moderate Republicans, whose support will be needed in the primaries. According to a survey conducted by the New York Times and CBS News, two-thirds of Americans are in favor of an international climate agreement. 75 percent of respondents – including 58 percent of Republicans – said that “global warming was already having a serious environmental impact or would in the future.” Republican election strategists will have to take this into account in the coming year if they wish to appeal to this majority demographic.

What role does the private sector play in realizing the emissions reductions laid out in the Paris Agreement?

Obama's climate policy will be more likely to succeed domestically and internationally if it the American economy sees the economic advantages of the Paris Agreement.

The White House has recognized the important role that business plays in this regard. In October, 81 American companies with more than 9 million employees and a total of 3 billion US dollars in annual revenue, signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge. This White House-initiated pact sent a strong political signal to the international climate negotiations and highlighted the central role of the business and innovation community in combating climate change. Companies such as American Express, Coca-Cola and Apple pledged to actively participate in the decarbonization of the American economy. Business tycoons like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jeff Bezos of Amazon established the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to promote targeted research and development of clean energy technologies, such as energy storage.

Indeed, the fact that US lead negotiator Todd Stern’s first post-COP debriefing was with representatives of the American business community was certainly no coincidence. According to Stern, these firms must take advantage of the momentum achieved in Paris and leverage it to develop and advance clean technologies and services. The administration hopes that the Paris Agreement will provide a stable investment and innovation framework for the expansion and development of clean technologies.

How will the Paris agreement impact Obama's Clean Power Plan?

The Clean Power Plan (CPP) is without a doubt the Obama administration’s most ambitious climate and energy project, and forms the centerpiece of the President’s climate legacy. The plan was strategically designed to avoid the consent of the republican-controlled Congress, which has proved unable and unwilling to develop its own strategy for combating climate change.

The CPP calls for an emissions reduction target of 26-28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005, a pledge that was the cornerstone of Obama’s climate credibility in Paris. However, two weeks before the international negotiations, the CPP was rejected by the Republican Senate in a symbolic vote. Even though Obama had made his intentions to veto the bill very clear, this vote was only the beginning of what will continue to be a long political and legal battle. In the coming years, the plan will surely face even more opposition – a Republican president or a Supreme Court ruling could very likely overturn the CPP and thrust the US back into the climate and energy stone age. Several states, including Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana have already announced their intention to take legal action against the plan, which could delay its implementation. After all, it took eight years for the Supreme Court to determine that the EPA had the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

In his support of, in and for Paris, President Obama has emerged as the first real “Climate President” of the United States. Whether or not his country and predecessor will remain faithful to this legacy remains uncertain. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that Obama's efforts will be in vain.

Despite the legal and political challenges ahead, many Americans and American business leaders already recognize the need for a sustainable transition away from the fossil-fuel based economy of the past. The significance of the Paris Agreement lies in the opportunity that is now rooted internationally.