Thursday 22 February 2018

Obama wants legally binding deal to outflank Republicans

Obama speaking in Paris
Obama speaking in Paris

Nancy Benac and Sylivie Corbet

Parts of a global climate agreement being hammered out in Paris should be legally binding, President Barack Obama said yesterday.

His declaration was both a boost to climate negotiators seeking a tough accord and a challenge to US Republican senators, many of whom don’t believe that global warming is real.

Whether to make the climate accord legally binding is a major sticking-point at the two-week talks in Paris, which aim to get all countries to agree to cut emissions that scientists say are warming the Earth and increasing extreme weather such as droughts and floods.

Obama has spent months prodding other countries to make ambitious carbon-cutting pledges to the agreement, which would last long beyond the end of his presidency in early 2017.

In Paris, Obama said the specific targets each country was setting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may not have the force of treaties, but it’ was critical that “periodic reviews” of those commitments be legally binding. He’s referring to a mechanism sought by negotiators under which countries would ratchet up their commitments every five years. “That’s going to be critical in us having high ambitions and holding each other accountable,” he said.

Obama would have little chance of getting the Republican-run Congress to approve a fully binding new climate treaty fighting global warming. So the White House has been searching for a compromise, sparing the need for a new vote. The White House had already said parts of the deal should be legally binding, but this is the first time Obama has said it himself, and spelled out which ones.

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders have warned other countries not to trust any deal Obama may strike. Other Republican politicians are working to nullify Obama’s emissions-cutting steps at home.

More than 190 countries are taking part in the Paris talks based on a collective understanding that humans are contributing to global warming. In the US, however, there is debate about whether humans really are contributing to climate change, and what, if anything, policymakers should do about it. Almost all Republicans, along with some Democrats, oppose steps Obama has taken to curb emissions, arguing they will hurt the economy, shutter coal plants and eliminate jobs in power-producing states.

Other countries are also concerned about economic impact. “There are countries like Saudi Arabia which rely very largely on oil revenue for their economic survival. Does that make them bad guys? There are countries like Poland that rely largely on coal. Does that make them bad guys?” Yvo de Boer, former head of the UN climate change agency, said.

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