Progress in Cancun and How America Can Meet Our Climate Commitments

In Cancun, nearly 200 countries reached an agreement on how to confront climate change both as individual nations and as a global community. This achievement brings greater definition to the Copenhagen accord and provides a practical framework for all countries to forge ahead with climate solutions.

This is real, historic progress (read about the details of the agreement from NRDC’s Cancun bloggers). It is also a reminder that the United States must do our share by living to the commitments we have made.

At the negations in Copenhagen, President Obama pledged to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 17 percent. That promise was reaffirmed in Cancun, and now we must make good on it because it will benefit Americans—generating more job opportunities, greater national security, and better health.

The U.S. Senate made that job harder when it refused to take up comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation last summer. Obstructionists claimed there was no way for lawmakers to agree on the details of transformative energy policy.

The negotiators in Cancun proved that claim false. If 193 countries can find common ground—despite the fact that some of them are rich in oil, some are short on energy resources, some of them are sitting on the frontlines of sea level rise, some are unlikely to feel climate impacts for years to come—surely 60 senators from the same nation can do the same.

I am not suggesting it will be easy. The agreement reached in Cancun wasn’t easy either. Just days before the event ended, China and the United States seemed destined to remain at loggerheads. Some insiders predicted the collapse of the entire UN climate negotiating process.

But by the closing session, country after country stood up and endorsed the agreement. One of NRDC’s experts said that in all his years attending climate negotiations, he had never seen so many standing ovations for draft text or heard so much applause for each nation’s comments. Only one nation—Bolivia—opposed the text, primarily because it felt it was not strong enough. But the overall spirit of agreement in the room restored confidence in the ability of diverse nations to come together to confront climate change.

I would like to see the U.S. Congress find a similar spirit of collaboration—especially when America has so much to gain from shifting to cleaner energy, including nearly 2 million jobs and leadership in the global energy technology market.

Some climate holdouts in the Senate should find comfort in the Cancun agreement, particularly the fact that developing nations are making firm commitments to reduce their emissions. The United States is in no danger of moving first or acting alone.

In fact, America cannot wait for Congress to catch up with the rest of the world. Fortunately, the Obama Administration can use existing tools to put climate solutions in place, and it has already begun the process.

In May, 2009, President Obama announced new clean car standards that will not only save drivers an estimated $65 billion at the pump in 2020, but will also cut slash emissions by more than 220 million metric tons in the year 2020 alone. That is equivalent to taking 38 million cars off the road for a year.

Soon the administration will also issue new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. NRDC’s experts are pushing the administration to set the bar at 60 by 2025—an achievable goal that would dramatically cut carbon emissions and give automakers the incentive they need to produce more hybrids and electric cars.

But perhaps one of most critical steps the administration is taking is creating its own program to reduce carbon emissions from major polluters like power plants and oil refineries. The coal industry and its allies in the Senate are trying to block the program and undermine the EPA’s authority to protect Americans from dangerous pollution. But NRDC has beaten back previous attacks on this rule—even winning in the Supreme Court—and we will succeed again.

We must succeed if America is going to meet our obligation to reduce carbon emissions. The benefits will be felt abroad—greater credibility, renewed standing in the international arena, greater negotiating power—but also here at home in the form of more jobs, more technological innovations, and more savings. Surely even 60 Senators could agree these benefits are good for America.