What to watch for in U.S. climate plan for Paris

Later this month, the Obama administration will unveil how it plans to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels within a decade, the core of the negotiating position it will take to global climate talks Paris this December.

While the broad outlines of the U.S. position are known, there is great interest in its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC), climate diplomats’ term for each country’s domestic program to achieve its Paris targets.

So far only the EU and Switzerland have released plans. Most countries – including China and India – are not expected to do so until the summer. The Obama administration has suggested that showing its hand early could pressure other major emitters to be comprehensive in their own INDCs.

Obama administration will need to address some key questions.

For example, The EU and some developing countries insist that any deal in Paris be “legally binding” to ensure parties do not backslide on their promises. While the Obama administration wants a deal beholden to national laws and regulations, the Republican-held Congress has made its hostility to an internationally binding treaty clear.

On the other hand, The Environmental Protection Agency has relied on the existing Clean Air Act as the main tool to regulate vehicles, utilities and industry, and political opponents are vowing to gut those regulations.

Another issue is that one uncertainty about the U.S. plan is how it will account for carbon dioxide emitted and stored by forests, and land-use. The issue is controversial because some argue that including forest and land management in climate policies detracts from emissions cuts from other sectors such as transportation and buildings. The EU’s INDC deferred the issue to a technical study.

To finalize, The United States is constrained in detailing how much each proposal will contribute to the overall target because some regulations have not yet been finalized and may face lawsuits. “The U.S. will probably want to preserve some flexibility as to how the target is reached since there are so many factors that cannot be precisely controlled,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.