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Transcript of White House press briefing on US INDC


The State Department has just informed me that “there was a small – but significant – typo made by the stenographer in the version that went out following the call.” Todd Stern’s remark that “the INDC itself as submitted now is a legally binding statement…” should have read “the INDC itself as submitted now is NOT a legally binding statement…” A corrected version of the transcript is below.

MR. BENENATI: Hey, everyone, thank you so much for joining, and sorry for running a little bit late today. We want to get this call started. This is the climate call on our INDC submission to the UNFCCC. This call will be on the record with no embargo, with Senior Advisor Brian Deese and Special Envoy for Climate Change at the State Department Todd Stern.

So with that, let’s get it started. I’ll turn it over to Brian.

MR. DEESE: Thanks, Frank. And thank you, everybody, for joining us. Today the United States took the latest step in helping lead the international effort to address climate change by formally submitting our INDC — or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC — the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Those are the acronyms. I just want to talk a little bit about what this means, and then turn it to Todd to give some context on the negotiation.

As you all know, the President first announced a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 in November. He did that as part of an historic joint announcement with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And with today’s submission, what we have seen is now well over half of the world’s energy-related carbon pollution is reflected in countries who have either formally submitted their INDCs or have publicly announced and committed to portions of their target. In other words, nearly 60 percent of the global carbon pollution is already reflected in ambitious, achievable commitments as part of the UNFCCC process.

I just want to highlight a couple aspects of our submission. This submission is ambitious and achievable within existing legal authority. Over the last eight years, we, the United States, have already cut carbon pollution more than any other country. By formalizing this goal we are committing to build on that progress and to pick up the pace.

As we said last November and as is captured clearly in the INDC we’re submitting today, we will make best efforts to achieve the upper end of the 26 to 28 percent range. That puts the United States on a trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the order of 80 percent by 2050. And as I mentioned, we can achieve this goal using laws that are already on the books.

The INDC we’re submitting today highlights policies that will get us to that goal. It highlights both policies that are already in place and are delivering benefits for the American economy while reducing carbon pollution, as well as several policies that are in the process of being formalized and will be in place by the time the President leaves office.

I just want to give you a quick sense of how these policies operate together to get us to the goal. First, carbon dioxide emissions account for about 80 percent of greenhouse gases, so that’s where the bulk of the reductions will come. We are taking actions to cut emissions from all the big sources of CO2 emissions. The power sector is the biggest source of CO2 emissions, and as noted in the INDC, the Clean Power Plan will be finalized this summer and it will cut CO2 emissions in the power sector by 30 percent.

Transportation is the next biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. economy, and as you see in the INDC, we have already set fuel economy standards and will reach 54 and a half miles per gallon in 2025. And we are in the process of setting new standards for heavy-duty vehicles, which will take another bite out of carbon pollution from the transportation sector.

The remaining portion of CO2 emissions comes from businesses and homes — the built sector in the United States. That’s where we are moving on emissions by improving energy efficiency. As you see in the INDC, the Department of Energy has already completed 29 energy efficiency regulations. These include major rules, like for electric motors, petroleum at 96 million metric tons of CO2, as well as fluorescent lamps, 98 million metric tons. In addition, you’ll see that the INDC notes that DOE will continue on its path of rulemaking beyond the rules that are already finalized to address emissions from the built sector in the United States.

So that’s carbon dioxide. If you look at the other 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that are not carbon dioxide, they are in things like hydro-fluorocarbons, which are chemicals used in refrigeration and air-conditioning. They are potent greenhouse gases, as well as methane and other gases. You’ll see in the INDC our strategy to address these as well. We are already takings steps to replace hydro-fluorocarbons with climate-friendly alternatives, and over time we’ll be taking them out. Again, these potent polluters have 10,000 times the global warming potential of carbon pollution, and our strategy clearly addresses them.

On methane, we’re in the process of implementing a comprehensive strategy to cut emissions from landfills — gas industry, and other sources. As the INDC notes, we’re in the process of taking steps that will meet the goal that we committed to earlier this week of reducing methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012.

So if you take all of those together, the administration’s climate work will help meet the ambitious but achievable goal we have submitted today. We have the tools we need to meet this goal and to take action on climate pollution. And we know that this is good for our economy, good for our health, and good for our future.

Just the last point I just want to lift up a little bit. Even if we have cut carbon pollution here in the United States more than any other country over the last several years, we’ve also seen the longest streak of private sector job creation on record. We’ve created 12 million jobs over the last 60 months. And, in fact, we saw a very promising sign just a couple weeks ago that even outside the United States, the IEA, the International Energy Agency, reported that in 2014 the global economy grew but global carbon CO2 emissions did not. I think this reflects an optimistic point that in the United States we don’t need to choose between economic growth and protecting our planet for future generations. And, in fact, the world doesn’t need to make that choice as well.

And, indeed, (inaudible) carbon will cost far more in the long run. So we think this is an economically sound, ambitious, but achievable goal. And our hope is that by submitting our INDC we can continue to encourage countries to follow the lead of countries like China and Mexico and the European Union to make commitments in advance of Paris.

And on that front, let me turn it to Todd who can talk about the negotiations.

MR. STERN: Thanks, Brian. I will be quite brief, and then we can open up for questions. As you all know, this is a big year for climate change, with negotiations that were launched in 2011 in Durban and scheduled to culminate in Paris in December. We have an opportunity this year to achieve an historic agreement that would establish an ambitious, durable regime, genuinely applicable to all countries for the first time.

And the foundation stone for such an agreement are the nationally determined targets that countries submit. What we are doing today, as Brian noted, is making the formal submission of our U.S. target an ambitious, transparent and timely offering that puts the U.S. in a leadership position in the climate negotiations. As Brian detailed, our target is strong, clear, and puts us on a straight line path to an over-80 percent reduction by 2050.

It is also timely. In Warsaw, at the climate meeting at the end of 2013, countries were invited to submit their INDCs well in advance of Paris. Those who were ready to do so were also invited to submit by the end of the first quarter of 2015. We also said that we would be one of those countries who were ready to do so and would make such a submission. And today we are demonstrating that.

Finally, our target we hope will help spur others to step forward with strong targets of their own. As Brian noted, well over 50 percent of global emissions — close to 60 — have come forward already, including China and the EU and Mexico and a few others. There are, of course, many issues yet to be resolved in this negotiation and we still have a lot of work ahead of us. But nothing is more important in a negotiation which is aimed at preventing dangerous climate change than the individual and cumulative actions taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions. So the targets countries submit to spur and guide those actions are absolutely pivotal.

With that, we will be happy to take questions, thanks.

Q Hi, thanks so much for hosting this. I just wanted to ask I guess for Mr. Stern. Besides setting an example and submitting the U.S. contribution today by the original deadline, are you or other administration officials twisting arms or encouraging other countries to move forward? We have Mexico which is right next door. What about Canada?

And then the other piece of that is, we talk about over 60 percent of carbon is coming from countries that have made some kind of firm commitment to Paris. Is it more important — is it a greater goal for Paris to achieve numerical cuts in carbon and related emissions? Or is it more important to sign up all the countries to do something — all the countries or almost all the countries? Is participation more important or is the overall reduction? There are a lot of goals for Paris out there.


MR. STERN: Thanks. So a couple of points. First of all, I wouldn’t say we are twisting arms, but we are certainly working, reaching out to a variety of countries to talk about the importance of submitting timely and ambitious INDCs. In some cases we are providing technical support or sharing information about how we approached our own efforts. So we are consulting with any number of countries I think in a quite constructive fashion.

With respect to your second question, I think the answer is both of those things are important. We want to encourage as ambitious a set of targets as we can possibly get because that’s the first big step forward in terms of getting strong and ambitious reduction totals. But part and parcel of that is we want broad participation. We can’t do one without the other. And it is important generally to have this agreement really be applicable to all. That was part of the original mandate agreed to in Durbin and it is a critical part of the discussions.

MR. DEESE: And this is Brian. I would only add to what Tom said in that I think what’s significant about where we are today is not simply that we have seen countries representing nearly 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions make public commitments, but that the countries that have made those commitments span the spectrum, including major emerging economies, and you’ve got China and Mexico out there with clear, ambitious targets. And so I think that it’s not simply that nearly 60 percent of global emissions have committed, but you’ve seen different countries differently situated all making commitments toward the broader goal.

Q How do you see the presentation of the INDC as giving assurances to other countries that the commitments that are being made, that are being outlined here are not going to be subject to the whims of Congress or to political changes, or even to legal challenges? In addition to spelling out what you’re doing with the Clean Air Act, how do you kind of make that personal appeal in bilateral talks that are kind of in the multilateral negotiations?

MR. DEESE: I think that the structure of the INDC reflects the approach that we are taking in setting this goal. The structure is grounded in an assessment of the potential to reduce emissions through our obligation under existing laws — these are laws that have already been passed by Congress and therefore no new legislation is necessary to realize the reductions we propose. That’s point one.

Point two is that if you look at the application of those existing laws — as you noted, the Clean Air Act, also the Energy Policy and Conservation Act — the application across the board is straightforward, consistent with past practice, and done in a way to provide flexibility within our economy to achieve these goals in the most efficient and cost-effective way. And the way in which in our legal system we accomplish that is by engaging in rule-making, and in those rule-makings we detail very explicitly the approach and the flexibilities involved, and also the overall benefits to the economy.

I think that that basic framework is one that undergirds the INDC we’re submitting, and that’s the framework that we will explain to partner countries in terms of how it is that we here in the United States will achieve these goals.

Q Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. One for each of you. Todd, I was wondering, can you give us an update on what you are pushing for in your negotiations with your colleagues as far as the legal structure for this? Do you want a legally binding agreement that Congress has to ratify or some hybrid —

And, Brian, you were talking about how this is all achievable within the existing legal authority, but as you know, most of the things that you guys are doing to achieve these reductions face pretty significant legal challenges. So I’m wondering if any one of those components ends up getting derailed, do you have a plan B to be able to still meet the goals that you’re announcing today? Thank you.

MR. STERN: I’ll start. Josh, the legal form of the agreement is very much still part of the discussion. We have — I have expressed interest in a kind of hybrid proposal that New Zealand has put forward, but this is very much part of the discussions right now.

I think that — the second part of the question is for Brian. I would just reiterate what Brian has already said, which is that every element of the INDC that we’re relying on is achievable on the basis of existing authority. And perhaps just to add a comment with respect to the question Valerie asked — undoing the kind of regulations that we are putting in place is something that’s very tough to do. And countries ask me about the solidity of what we’re doing all the time, and that’s exactly what I explain. We’re based on existing authority, and the kind of regulation that we’re putting in place does not get easily undone.

MR. DEESE: So, Josh, I would say two things to that question. The first is, I actually think that if you look across the activities that the administration is undertaking, you see areas where there is actually growing support from not just Congress, but stakeholders and industry and others. For example, if you look at the fuel economy standards that the administration first proposed in 2009, those set fuel efficiency standards out through 2025, and have been in place now — that framework has been in place now for several years. And in the industry, rather, stakeholders have actually benefitted from the certainty that that type of regulatory action provides.

Likewise, if you look at the efficiency standards that the Department of Energy has promulgated, in many cases those are cases where you see industry actually welcoming those standards because they provide certainty and they provide a framework with which to operate.

Likewise, if you look at our methane strategy — again, designed to reduce by 40 to 45 percent methane emissions — we have important components of that in the Ag sector and otherwise. And they’re relying on voluntary agreements with industry where we are partnering in the kind of durable agreements that not only are difficult to undo because they are regulatory actions based on existing legal laws, but also because they are benefitting the economy and industry by providing certainty for investment going forward.

The second piece is obviously the Clean Power Plan is an important component of our overall strategy. And there, we feel quite confident that the approach that Todd laid out is not only consistent with longstanding regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act, but is also designed to provide states maximum flexibility to achieve targets based on plans that reflect their own circumstances. And so Administrator McCarthy and her team are working hard with states to make sure that they understand the flexibilities that they’re afforded under that regulatory approach, but we are quite confident that this is a well-established legal framework that we’re operating under.

Q You guys talked about how you can reach the cuts of 26 to 28 percent, given the actions that you can take during the Obama administration. But as you mentioned, the U.S. is also committed to cuts of 80 percent by 2050. You talked about this being a first step towards meeting that, putting the U.S. on a trajectory. What will the next President have to do to continue that trajectory? Is this President sort of doing everything that’s possible under existing law? Talk about the next step in the next administration — what you need to see to continue that and to get towards that 80 percent goal.

MR. DEESE: Well, one of the things that is animating the approach that we’ve laid out here and the identification of the 2025 goal is balancing the need to have a goal that we feel is achievable and that we can be held accountable for. So it’s not so far in the future that you can actually measure and quantify with some certainty, but also reflecting the fact that the pace of innovation changes the technology landscape and otherwise, that you’re going to want to be coming back and renewing efforts to address climate change in cost-effective ways, as well.

It was several years ago when we came into office in 2009 that the business-as-usual scenarios suggested that we would be seeing a meaningful increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the United States by 2025. And we have over the course of the last several years, in large part because of the actions that we have taken, we’ve changed our trajectory. And some of those were ways that were hard for us to anticipate what would be possible, because we’ve seen, for example, major changes in the cost of low- and zero-carbon energy over the course of the last couple of years.

So I think what we’re trying to do is put forward a framework that is achievable out to a target that is ambitious but also can be verified — that’s what we view the 2025 target to be — and also to do so by using legal authority that exists today and that will be locked in before we leave office, but with the understanding that there will be new opportunities in the future, and that some of those will be a reflection of technological advances and innovations. And so this is a framework that we hope will be one that future administrations can build on that reflects a durable commitment to achieve at least these goals going out in the future.

MR. STERN: I just want to correct the record for one second, though. You agree with everything that Brian just said, but you said the U.S. also committed to cuts of 80 percent by 2050. We’ve never committed to cuts of 80 percent by 2050. We have an ambition to go in that direction and we have explained that 28 percent is on a straight-line path to an 80-plus percent reduction by 2050. But there is a distinction between making a commitment, which we did to hit in the range of 17 percent by 2020, and the commitment that we’re making now with respect to 2025, which is the 26 percent to 28 percent. So I want to make that clear.

Q At the same time that the U.S. has been achieving these reductions in emissions, over in the Obama administration we’ve also seen this huge explosion in U.S. oil and gas production. And your friends at Greenpeace are out with a statement today saying that the administration’s support for those sorts of activities undercut its climate gains and promises. And I wonder if you could comment on that and talk about how we square the U.S. support, the administration’s support for increased oil and gas production with your stated goal of decarbonizing the economy.

MR. DEESE: So I think that it is an improbable American story that over the last several years we’ve seen not only historic increases in oil and gas productions and a record stretch of private sector job growth while at the same time seeing the U.S. outpace the rest of the world in reducing total our greenhouse gas emissions. And I think it reflects the potential that we can, in fact, lead the world in combatting climate change and cutting carbon pollution while encouraging a dynamic, flourishing economy here in the United States is consistent with the middle-class economics vision that the President has laid out and has consistently identified as his North Star of this year.

I think that, in practice, we are seeking to support energy sources of the future. I think part of what you’ve seen in this transition is that the reduction in the cost of natural gas has expanded to natural gas, which is a lower emissions form of energy than traditional energy sources that we have seen. But what you’re seeing is also a dramatic reduction in the cost of renewable energy and dramatic increases in adoption for renewable energy as well. In fact, last year, 100 percent of new electricity production in the U.S. was from low or zero carbon energy, which I think is notable in terms of the direction that we are headed.

So I think if you look at the INDC or if you look at the administration’s broader strategy, it reflects a very aggressive effort to take on climate change but one where we don’t have to get caught in old arguments that require us to choose between promoting economic growth here in the U.S. and addressing climate change. And so that’s going to continue to be our goal.

Q Hi, thanks. This contribution or the agreement sounds subject to approval from the Senate as a treaty. Are you concerned with congressional Republicans who want to have approval over this? And then also, does this contribution commit the United States to any policies that it would not have done anyway?

MR. STERN: Well, the contribution is not itself legally binding. And as I noted earlier, the legal form of the agreement that’s getting negotiated in Paris for Paris is very much a subject of discussion, early discussion. So we don’t know yet what form it’s going to take and, accordingly, what treatment it will get here. But the INDC itself as submitted now is not a legally binding statement and, as Brian noted earlier, everything in it is based on — all the policies that underpin it are based on existing legal authority.

And, Brian, I don’t know if you have anything to add.

MR. DEESE: Yes. Look, on your second question, I think if you look at the INDC and you look more broadly at our path toward achieving the goals that are laid out there, what it reflects is the President’s leadership on climate change, and that the steps that are outlined in there are consistent with the Climate Action Plan that the President put forward almost two years ago in June of 2013, and that the progress that we’ve made and our ability to make concrete commitments to achieve these ambitious goals did not — would not have come about absent strong leadership on setting this as a priority, but a priority to do so in a way that is consistent with growing our economy.

Q Thank you. Todd, Brian, I wonder if either of you could answer the question of whether you see any reason why Japan, Canada and Australia might not have been able to file before today’s deadline.

MR. STERN: I’m not going to speculate about the internal processes of those three countries or any others.

I want to again correct the record. There is no deadline today with respect to what countries agree to. The agreement in — this was something negotiated at the Warsaw COP in 2013 — was that countries would submit their INDCs well in advance of Paris — so that was a period in advance of Paris but without any specification attached to it — and then for those who are ready by the first quarter of 2015. So that’s something that we’re doing. That’s something that a number of other countries are doing. And there are many more countries who are busily working on their INDCs and will be, we think and hope, putting them forward in a timely manner, very much consistent with what was agreed to in Warsaw.

Q Hi, thanks for taking the call. I know that the U.S. is working hard to build momentum on the road to Paris. And a lot of environmentalists have speculated that if the Keystone pipeline were to be approved that could really undermine international confidence in the administration’s commitment to dealing with climate change. I was wondering if you guys could comment on whether or not you think a decision on Keystone one way or the other could either spur momentum or undermine confidence, and if you have any updates on when a decision might come.

MR. DEESE: So with respect to Keystone, that is in the State Department process and it’s continuing to be worked in that process. So I won’t comment on it beyond that. And with respect to the timing, we don’t have any updates for you today.

MR. STERN: I don’t have anything to add to that either.

MR. BENENATI: So thank you all again for joining the call today. Again, in case you missed it at the top, this call was on the record with no embargo. If you have any follow-up questions, feel free to give me — throw me an email [email protected] and we’ll have a transcript for you from this call later today.

Thanks again for joining and let me know if you have any other questions.

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