US Top Court Imperils Asia Climate Control Efforts

Only a few months after the historic signing of the United Nations-sponsored COP-21 climate agreement in Paris in December, there are already signs of its possible failure. Early last week, the United States Supreme Court stayed the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan (CPP) until its legality can be adjudicated, which could take several months.

On Feb. 8, in a stunning decision criticized by environmentalists, a 5-4 majority of the court delayed the EPA’s plan, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s fight to limit carbon emissions while lawsuits against the federal government by 29 states are adjudicated by lower courts. The decision is considered to be ominous because the top court usually allows such plans to stay in force until their own decision is made. The ruling, by a deeply conservative court, means it is almost certain that the fight over the plan will go on after Obama leaves office – and if a Republican is elected President in December, it would doom it.

After Paris, everyone went home more hopeful about the future. Leaders and negotiators went home with a climate deal in their hands, knowing full well what they needed to do in their countries to ensure they reach their targets. Civil society went home knowing the climate agreement is not enough and that there is a need increase ambition on the part of governments and to remind them what was promised in Paris.

The nations of the world gathered at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) last month to come to an agreement on the urgent mission of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, all they produced was an attractive vision statement that is more sham than solution.

It is imperative that the world invests significantly and quickly in climate mitigation strategies to reduce the human and economic cost of climate change, which is where COP21 fell short. The vague wording of the final declaration gives too much wiggle room for nations to avoid painful choices.

“This agreement is a great escape for the big polluters, and a poisoned chalice for the poor,” concludes Asad Rehman from the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice. “We’ve got some warm words about temperature levels, but no concrete action.”

Thus the Paris summit on climate change ended without a meaningful climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol, a failure of will that places inordinate faith in voluntary compliance.

Climate change is expected to have severe costs in the Asia-Pacific region, given that countries like the Maldives, the Philippines and Indonesia made up of thousands of small islands, which are especially vulnerable. Nonetheless, some countries have been up to the challenge, particularly in Asia.

China is moving more rapidly toward renewable energy than arguably any other country in the world. It has stopped approving new coal mines. Vietnam has committed to phasing out coal. Indonesia has made promises toward reducing the destruction of peat forests which are some of the world’s biggest storehouses of carbon, the main element in greenhouse gases. Even the American business community is moving fast to solar and other renewables, outrunning a conservative Congress in thrall to oil companies

But others in Asia have been reluctant to make such commitments, particularly India, which is rising fast up the scale on the way to become a major source of greenhouse gases. It is now ranked third after China and the United States. Indonesia’s greenhouse promises could evaporate in the face of global sales of palm oil and the drive to create new oil palm plantations. The Philippines, despite its critical position as vulnerable to ocean rise and increasingly violent tropical storms, in June budgeted for 21 new coal-fired plants.

South Korea and Japan, which decommissioned its nuclear powerplants after the Fujishima earthquake, both are building new coal-fired plants. With the world’s second-biggest country carbon emitter seeming to be taking steps backwards, all of these countries are emboldened to do nothing about climate change – Japan in particular, which suffers an enormous energy deficit because of the closure of some of its nuclear plants.

The Clean Power Plan was the most far-reaching of the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce the country’s carbon emissions. According to The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, Obama’s CPP “gives states the option of developing plans to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power plants or letting the EPA develop the plans for them.”

In effect, this would reduce GHG emissions by 870 million tonnes or 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Aside from the US Supreme Court stay, which given the current conservative composition of the court may well mean it will be blocked permanently, the US has – behind the scenes – been reluctant to match its rhetoric with its performance. It was known to have blocked many policies inside the climate negotiations. The climate agreement was endangered when US Secretary of State John Kerry called for a closed-door meeting after the final draft of the agreement used “shall” (legally binding) instead of “should” (less binding) pertaining to emission reduction targets.

The agreement was signed after the original sentence, “Developed Country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets” was changed to “Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.”

If anything, this goes to show how committed the United States really was in turning the climate agreement into concrete action. During Obama’s speech at the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 in Paris, he acknowledged the US’s role in climate change and promised to take responsibility.

“I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it,” Obama said.

If the United States can’t keep its commitments and will not cut its emissions, the climate agreements have failed. The Paris agreement was negotiated on for more than two decades and was largely built on trust. To break that trust spells doom, not only on the agreement, but on the future of humanity.

Will the United States take its commitments seriously? It needs to. But the Supreme Court’s decision to stay the CPP is making a farce out of the negotiations. The US is showing it can easily decide on its own, without regard on what was agreed in Paris. It now needs to show its sincerity and seriousness in leading the path to low emission development.

The need for the US to lower its emissions is non-negotiable, especially for countries whose very survival now rests on concrete climate action. The Paris agreement will only remain an agreement, a piece of paper, unless things are done on the ground. We need to see governments working, changing policies, investing in and implementing carbon reduction projects.

We cannot have another Kyoto Protocol, the agreement put together in 2005 and which has been roundly ignored by most nations. The US, for instance, refused to ratify it. We cannot afford to fail this time around. We no longer have the leeway, the world has warmed rapidly and we are already at nature’s mercy.

This article was originally published in Asia Sentinel.