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Presidential hopefuls face tough road on climate change

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will find it tough to implement the energy policy changes they want

The two US presidential contenders may have expressed starkly differing views on climate change issues during the campaign in the run up to November's election, but it would be a mistake to assume that either will be able to implement all the policies they espouse, say leading figures from the Washington-based Atlantic Council international policy think tank.

"The conventional wisdom is that the Democratic Party is good for climate and the Republican Party is good for fossil fuels, but that's a bit simplistic," Atlantic Council president Frederick Kempe told a WEC 2016 session on Tuesday.

Hillary Clinton has long embraced tough climate change measures, supported international agreements, and backs the Clean Power Plan implemented by President Barack Obama's administration to enforce emissions cuts and facilitate a switch from coal power to renewables. She has also tended to become more strident in her support for them during her Democratic Party leadership battle with left-winger and green issues campaigner Bernie Sanders, speakers noted.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has resurrected former Republican leadership candidate Sarah Palin's old catchphrase, "Drill, baby drill" and said he would ensure that oil and gas firms would have more freedom to increase production, support the coal industry and loosen emissions regulations to make it less complex for this to happen.

Trump, who now trails Clinton heavily in pre-election polls, has also said he plans to "cancel' the global climate change deal agreed in Paris last December.

Backing Paris

President Barack Obama's administration ratified the agreement in September, along with China. Enough countries have now backed the deal that is due to come into force on 4 November, less than a week before the US election and no more than two months before the next president takes office.

"In terms of American policy, that means there is some legal force in play. Donald Trump has talked about erasing Paris. But that wouldn't be possible in that space, given that it will already be ratified," said Phillip Cornell, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council told delegates.

However, Trump could take measures to stymie efforts to implement radical climate change policy, for example by pulling in the claws of the Environmental Protection Agency-currently one of the main agencies for implementing federal climate change policy.

He would also be able to exploit the vagueness of some of the mechanisms in place to enforce the Paris agreement, which has heavy emphasis on peer pressure rather than readily enforceable regulation.

But, even if Clinton wins, as looks likely, she would not be able to implement all the policies she might want to, as she will face opposition from some dissenting states-such as those in the coal belt-and need the support of Congress.

From that point of view, the outcome of finely balanced Congressional elections to be held on the same day as the presidential election could be crucial to how much impact a President Clinton would make on the energy sector.

A Republican majority in either House could complicate the passage of legislation designed to help the US achieve targets laid out under the Paris agreement-and any effort to introduce a carbon tax could prove toxic for politicians of either party, if businesses in their own states threaten to revolt over it, Cornell said.

A more likely approach will be that states will be asked to come up with their own solutions to meeting emissions and other environmental targets imposed on them. However, that could lead to a patchwork of differing regulations across the US states, which could persuade some businesses to look more favourably at the carbon tax option, if it leads to a less complicated environmental framework for them to operate in, Cornell noted.

Enforcing a carbon tax in the US would be easier if an agreement can be reached to implement one on an international level, Richard Morningstar, chairman of the Council's Global Energy Center said.

Complications

Another factor influencing the next president's ability to act quickly on climate change will be the composition of the US Supreme Court, to which legal disputes over environmental regulations can eventually end up.

In February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 along ideological lines to grant a request by 27 states and a group of companies and business groups to block the Clean Power Plan, issuing a "stay", which effectively put it on hold.

The plan was designed to lower carbon emissions from US power plants by 2030 to 32% below 2005 levels. It is now tied up in appeal court hearing in the District of Columbia, which could see it return to the Supreme Court later. However, the appeals court decision is likely to prove crucial, as the death of a conservative judge has reduced the Supreme Court to eight members for now-and that is most likely to produce a 4-4 vote on the plan, which would leave the appeals court verdict to stand for the time being.

Perhaps more importantly to the success of future measures to introduce tougher climate change measures may be the changing mood of the US people who, recent research suggests, may be favouring renewable energy and emissions reduction regulations more than they used to, said David Koranyi, director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasian Energy Futures Initiative. Indeed, the extent to which many US states already obtain significant amount of power from renewable energy, suggests that a pro-green agenda Hillary Clinton may yet prove to be knocking at an open door.

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