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Can the US Spearhead a Strong Climate Treaty in 2015?

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COAL PLANT
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Next week, Barack Obama will unveil the centerpiece of his climate rescue plan: new restrictions for America's vast fleet of 600 coal-fired power stations. Currently, they account for over 40 percent of the country's carbon pollution. But, under the new rules, those emissions would fall by a quarter.

Elevating the climate crisis to a top tier issue, the president will use his executive authority to personally push through the new regulations. The move comes one year after Obama vowed to fight global warming, and five years after a belligerent Congress torpedoed his climate change bill.

"This is a magic moment for the president -- a chance to write his name into the record books. But history will ultimately judge this less by an excellent speech than by the final contents and outcome of this initiative, "says Frank O'Donnell, Director of Clean Air Watch.

According to Tim Profeta from Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, if the new rules are stringent enough, they could "lock the trajectory in for cleaner and cleaner power generation."

Endorsed by the Supreme Court, the new regulations will have to endure a year long comments process, and will come into effect before Obama leaves office in 2016.

Relying on a section of the Clean Air Act which has never been used for such radical reform, the fine print will have to be water tight to withstand any legal challenges.

First signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to rein in pollution if it poses a threat to public heath and welfare. Given that global warming is one of the greatest threats to humanity, Obama is simply following though on the law's original mandate.

After a securing a string of court victories, the EPA is confident of success. But, according to the Guardian, it may still have quite a fight on its hands. It says that the fossil fuel lobby is in the midst of launching a string of lawsuits.

The new regulations come three months before world leaders gather in New York for a high-level UN summit aimed at drafting a global treaty to rein in emissions by 2020. Governments across the globe have promised to keep temperatures from rising above the so-called safe threshold of two degrees celsius.

Twenty years of climate talks have been plagued by discord and acrimony as nations squabbled over who should bear the brunt of cuts. But, if Obama can make these new rules a reality, he will have real clout and bargaining power heading into Paris next year:

"Everyone knows that the U.S. is key to achieving any solution to the climate change crisis. Many OPEC countries, who do not want to see the world wean itself from fossil fuels, realize this" says Wael Hmaidan, director of a Lebanon-based advocacy group, Climate Action Network.

"We're very excited to see the new rules on existing power plants. We see this as absolutely the backbone of U.S. climate strategy," says Günter Hörmandinger, environmental counselor to the European Union.

And, the timing couldn't be more critical.

Earlier this year, the United Nations warned that the devastating impacts of climate change are much worse than originally anticipated: "Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched," said Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the group's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That brutal assessment came six months after the Nobel Peace prize winning body warned that our planet is warming much faster than expected: Global temperatures may now exceed the safe limit of two degrees celsius within the next few decades.

Earlier this month, the U.S. military echoed the UN's dire assessment. It's latest report put global warming on par with the "Soviet nuclear threat during the Cold War."

Describing its impacts as brutal "threat multipliers", it highlights how rising temperatures will exacerbate already existing issues such as "poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, social tensions -- conditions that enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."

Any hope of saving our climate, if not humanity, rests with the continued cooperation between the US and China: their emissions match the rest of the world's combined.

Although the two nations have vowed to lead the charge against global warming, Beijing is still reluctant to makes its cuts binding. Even though it is about to overtake the U.S. to become the world's largest economy, millions of its people live on less than $400 a year.

Under pressure to walk lock step with the U.S., the Chinese administration will be closely looking at the new rules:

"This standard is the real test of how serious the Obama climate action plan really is. If the standard is really stringent, that will make a difference in the domestic debate in China. It will have an impact." says Qi Ye, director of the Climate Policy Center at Tsinghua University.

Moves by the Obama administration come as the World Meteorological Organization sounded yet another alarm this week. The concentration of carbon has now risen above the 400 parts per million mark across the entire northern hemisphere.

Time is running out. This should serve as yet another wake-up call about the constantly rising levels of greenhouse gases which are driving climate change. If we are to preserve our planet for future generations, we need urgent action to curb new emissions of these heat-trapping gases

,warned WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud.

According to the United Nations, if humanity has any hope of keeping world temperatures below the two degrees celsius mark, the concentration of carbon in our atmosphere must not exceed 450 parts per million.

Given that we are perilously close to breaching that limit, one can't help but hope that Obama's new power plant rules are a resounding success, and that world leaders fulfill their oath, and sign a strong treaty when they gather in Paris next year. Our collective future depends on it.

As John F Kennedy once said: "The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger -- but recognize the opportunity." The danger is clear: The opportunity, well that is in the eye of the beholder.