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EPA goes global in 2016

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The new year is "not going to be a year that we slow down," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The Environmental Protection Agency will be extending its reach globally this year, as it embeds staff in other countries to ensure they meet their commitments under last month's global climate change deal in Paris.

The new year is "not going to be a year that we slow down," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy last week during a speech at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

The agency will continue its efforts under President Obama's Climate Action Plan "to make sure this agreement is cast in stone," she said.

The Dec. 12 United Nations' agreement in Paris irked many Republicans by aligning the U.S. with 196 countries on emission cuts that ultimately could force Americans to pay more for their energy, while punishing fossil fuel companies at a time when the U.S. has become a top oil and natural gas producer.

The non-binding deal seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions to stop the Earth's climate from warming two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"We are quite sure that we will meet the president's commitment domestically," which includes several EPA regulations to cut U.S. emissions by as much as 28 percent by 2025, she said. "But we are not going to take our eyes off the ball of sharing our expertise in supporting this international effort."

That will mean EPA officials working more with other countries, primarily big emitters such as China and India, to ensure they comply with last month's agreement.

McCarthy suggested that the regulatory scrutiny required under the Paris deal could be a painful process. But it is something that she says will reap dividends for countries, many of which aren't used in accounting for their emissions.

"This isn't punishment, this is opportunities," said McCarthy, in describing the "challenge for EPA" in working with China and other developing countries to help them create inventories to account for their emissions.

EPA's message to the countries is: "If you can't say where your greenhouse gases are coming from, you are not going to be a market for technologies that can address them," she said.

"And for countries like China and India and others, where we now have monitors that look at air quality and recognize the problems they face, for them this is their opportunity to look at not just greenhouse gas reductions but efforts to reduce those that can also have co-benefits, that have direct public health benefits," she said.

The bottom-line message is that meeting the agreement's emission and reporting goals will attract investment, which is similar to EPA's pitch to the states that must comply with the domestic side of the agreement, the Clean Power Plan.

More than half of the states are suing the EPA to rescind the regulation as unconstitutional and regulatory overreach.

But the international deal is non-binding, McCarthy pointed out. She said the deal was done that way, with no means of coercing nations to comply, to bring more of the developing world onboard to fight global warming.

The EPA has done international work in the past, she said, "because we are more sophisticated than other environmental agencies in other countries," which look to the agency for assistance.

McCarthy traveled to China last year to begin laying the groundwork for helping them begin to account for emissions through the development of inventories, which is similar to what EPA does in the states to account for greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the Paris agreement, countries are required to provide data that shows how much of their emissions have been cut in two- and five-year intervals.

McCarthy said the effort is similar to what states are required to do under the agency's U.S. air quality emissions standards, in which they form a plan on how they will comply and then come back every year or two to see where things stand.

The Paris deal establishes a similar framework, and it will be the challenge for EPA "to expand the capacity of the developing countries to be able to do this well."

"We have actually spent a great deal of time in China doing this," she said. "We have actually detailed folks working with State [Department] to different countries to actually embed people there who can teach this, to get professional expertise there."

EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said the State Department is the leading the effort. She added the Paris agreement establishes "a new system applying to all countries, along with the recognition that some developing countries need support and assistance for implementation of the agreement."