UN Climate Summit Will Be a Time of Reckoning

Next week President Obama will attend the United Nations Climate Summit in New York. Over 125 heads of government will gather for the event, more than the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen. This summit is not designed to generate a legal agreement, but it will offer an important moment of reckoning.

People should expect leaders to say: Here is what my country is already doing to reduce climate change pollution. And we are prepared to deepen that commitment again next year. 

Strong action at home can add up to real progress around the world, especially as we head into the next round of critical agreements in Paris in 2015. And strong action is what hundreds of thousands of people will call for at the People’s Climate March this Sunday in New York and cities around the world.

We need real progress now more than ever. Last month was the hottest August on record globally. From the deadly floods in India to the prolonged drought in California, extreme weather is threatening our communities today.

When the international climate talks began several decades ago, negotiators often set distant goals, sometimes for 40 or 50 years down the road. That era is over. We can no longer afford to make vague promises or delayed commitments. We need on-the-ground accomplishments and firm targets.

Fortunately many nations recognize the urgent need to act, including the United States.

President Obama is expected to outline the significant steps the US has taken in recent years. In 2012, for instance, the Obama administration raised fuel economy standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. These cut carbon pollution from new cars in half and save consumers $80 billion a year at the pump.

This June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed national limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants—the largest source of US carbon emissions. The agency’s initial proposal calls for reducing carbon pollution by 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. That is a good start, but NRDC analysis shows stronger standards would allow the US to reach 36 percent by 2020 and 39 percent by 2025.

On Tuesday, the Obama Administration announced industry and government commitments to replace HFCs, the super-potent heat-trapping chemicals used in air conditioning, refrigeration, and insulation. This will speed the transition to next-generation technologies that use safer chemicals and less energy. And this fall the EPA is due to decide new standards to reduce the extraordinary leakage of methane—another potent climate change pollutant—from the oil and gas industry.

Taken together, these measures will help the US to deliver on the commitment President Obama made in Copenhagen: cutting carbon pollution by 17 percent by 2020.

At next week’s summit, other nations will announce their own progress. China, for instance, is seriously considering a cap on coal consumption and has indicated its plan to develop a national carbon cap and trade program by 2016. And India is dramatically scaling up solar power and several states are adopting efficiency standards that require buildings to use much less energy.

But even as other countries move forward, the US must continue to lead. The US is the second largest carbon emitter in the world and the largest overall contributor to the climate crisis. We have an obligation to take bold steps to reduce our own carbon pollution.

Not only will this leadership protect American families and create American jobs, it will spur other countries to act. Every time my NRDC colleagues and I meet with negotiators from other nations, they always say: “Tell us what the US is doing.” US leadership shows we are prepared to match our words with deeds. That’s why the US must meet our commitment to reduce carbon pollution by 17 percent and we must commit to additional steps next year in Paris. 

Now is the time. Decisions made in the next few years will shape our future for decades to come. World leaders must strengthen their collective resolve to address the greatest challenge facing humanity. And President Obama must continue to make the US a leader in climate action.