EPA Director, Gina McCarthy Reflects on Paris Climate Deal

February 3, 2016

~By Talia Schmitt, Class of 2016

WASHINGTON- The director of the Environmental Protection Agency said on Thursday that the recently completed Paris climate talks were significant because unlike at previous conferences, a range of businesses and countries, notorious for their lack of environmental regulations, agreed that climate change is currently one of the most pressing international issues.

Just two weeks after returning from the United Nations Climate Talks in Paris, the EPA director, Gina McCarthy, said the number of players at the table including  corporations and nations allowed for a much more productive conference.

Individuals like Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, and private sector groups like investment groups interested in clean energy are enabling the US to reach their goal of doubling investment in energy research, which is currently at $10 billion. Ms. McCarthy said that at this conference, businesses realized that a strong international climate agreement was needed to create a clean, green economy.

“The right people were around the table saying the only way we are going to get those investments is to get an agreement,” she said.

McCarthy said that the United States utilities industries who are already working to meet the new power plant regulations set forward by the US, were at the conference to explain how they have adapted their operations to meet the new rules.

“It turned out that I needed to do a lot less talking then I thought, because I had the utilities there doing that talking. That is quite a change,” said McCarthy.

Ms. McCarthy, who has been the head EPA administrator since 2013, spoke at a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations about topics ranging from the recent Porter Ranch Methane Leak to Industry’s role in the EPA.

But in the bulk of her prepared remarks as well as in the question answer session, Ms. McCarthy emphasized the significant developments that helped yield the landmark international agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions.

In previous years, industry has stayed out of the conversation, or even denied the occurrence of climate change. What’s different now, she said, is the private sector is stepping up because companies, especially industries like agriculture, realize that their businesses are and will be effected.

“There was a clear understanding that this isn’t just the government’s challenge. This is an impact on business that is already being felt,” McCarthy said.

The Paris agreement aims to commit nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. All 195 participating countries have approved the deal. Of those, 186 countries drafted plans ahead of the December summit, to outline their greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The United States has committed to reduce their greenhouse gas levels produced in 2005 by 26-28 percent by 2025. The Obama administration put in place the Clean Power Plan- the first national standards to limit carbon pollution from power plants. President Obama has increased vehicle fuel efficiency standards to 54.4 miles per gallon for cars and light-vehicle trucks by 2025, nearly doubling the fuel efficiency standards compared to new cars currently on the roads.

These executive actions did not require congressional approval which, experts say, allowed the President to avoid any red tape, and meet his emission reduction goals.

However, even if all 195 countries including the United States follow through on their promises, the deals aren’t strong enough to combat the predicted rise in global temperatures; experts say temperatures will still rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, resulting in some of the worst consequences of climate change from massive storm surges, to prolonged droughts.

Therefore, a large part of the agreement is the “ratcheting” up of regulations, or the improvement of a country’s climate plan every five years.

The United States leadership is something that she thinks distinguishes this year’s talks from previous ones.

“[The conference] put the US back in a leadership position in a way that we have not been for quite some time,” said McCarthy.

In the past, the US has rejected some of the largest international agreements to decrease greenhouse gas emissions like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Experts believe that the US’s rejection of this treaty, lead to the treaty’s failure.

Now, with not only the US at the table but other major economies like China and India, McCarthy says the conference was different.

By having countries come into the agreement with specific plans to reduce emissions, McCarthy says, countries were no longer starting at step one. World leaders also kicked off the conference rather than leaving their remarks for the end, which experts believe may have contributed to the sense of urgency felt throughout the talks.

“Every day after that was substantive instead a preliminary discussion…it was a vastly different way of structuring the meeting and it resulted in vastly more substantive discussion,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy mentions that many of these countries, historically infamous for being polluters, can no longer afford to just think about jobs, but must also think about the health and safety of its people when considering environmental regulations. Many countries are already forced to adapt, or change their practices, to meet temperature changes hitting now.

Countries like China and India which have acted as road blocks in the past, have changed their tune. They now recognize that responding to climate change will not only save its citizens from serious natural disasters, but also provide an opportunity to create an-internationally competitive ‘green’ economy.

“India recognizes that it is on the front line of disasters…so it’s not as cut and dry as we want jobs or we don’t want jobs. It’s about what do you do to protect your population at the same time,” McCarthy said.

She also believes this is an opportunity for countries to improve their economies through green technologies and jobs.

“This is all about shifting to a clean economy,” said McCarthy.

The urgency of Climate Change was very present, McCarthy says. There were no climate deniers at the conference, and no question of whether climate change is an issue.

“There was a certainty about the inevitability of needing to act on climate, and the immediacy of that need that was quite palpable and very different,” she stated.

McCarthy said that this conference marked a changing point for many people that Climate Change is not just a “tree hugger issue,” but rather one that is effecting communities and businesses now. She reiterates how all the people sitting around the table from industry, to faith-based leaders, to developing countries allowed for this “groundbreaking” agreement. This “positive energy,” she says will continue following the Paris conference.

Parts of Obama’s climate plan like the new regulations on the power plants are being held up in courts currently. Critics have brought lawsuits around the new regulations arguing that they exhibit government overreach. But McCarthy predicts that a decision will come out in the next few weeks, and she is confident that EPA’s new regulations will come out unscathed. This act among others would allow the US to meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets following Paris.

“2016 will really be for EPA a tremendous opportunity to move forward… in supporting this international effort which for the first time has a framing that could make it very successful and we intend to get it there,” McCarthy said.

 

Check out Talia’s blog here.

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