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EPA chief will focus on ocean trash, not climate change, at upcoming global summit

“The marine plastic debris is a huge issue that we’re all concerned about,” Andrew Wheeler says in an interview.

Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler at the agency's offices in Washington on Monday. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an interview Monday that he will emphasize the importance of curbing marine debris during an upcoming summit with his Group of 20 counterparts in Japan, rather than seeking new action on climate change.

Wheeler, who is headed to the Japanese resort town of Karuizawa later this week for the first-ever meeting of environment ministers from the world’s 20 largest economies, said that the trash accumulating in the ocean ranks as one of the globe’s most pressing environmental threats. The fact that six Asian countries top the list of perpetrators of marine trash, accounting for 60 percent of the waste, he said, means the world should focus its attention on that region.

“So that’s where the problem lies,” Wheeler said, adding that the United States ranks 20th in the world when it comes to ocean litter. “My biggest concern is, how do we stop the waste from other countries?”

Given the administration’s opposition to the Paris climate accord, however, Wheeler is also likely to face criticism in Japan over the U.S. government’s about-face on climate change under President Trump. While several G-20 nations have pushed to publicly endorse the implementation agreement, the Trump administration has consistently opposed such a move.

China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam account for half of the plastics in the world’s oceans, according to a 2015 study, with Thailand and Sri Lanka also on the list. The waste can be lethal to marine life, affecting hundreds of species, from sea turtles to seabirds, and researchers are investigating whether this pollution might ultimately pose health risks to humans.

The Trump administration has opposed binding measures to address ocean trash in the past. Last month, nearly every other country in the world besides the United States signed on to a framework for reducing marine plastics under the U.N.-backed Basel Convention, which will require nations to track its movements outside their borders. The United States also declined to endorse a Group of Seven statement on ocean plastics in 2018.

Still, Wheeler’s move to elevate the issue of marine pollution meshes well with Trump’s overall environmental priorities. The president has often brought up Asia’s contribution to water and air pollution when asked about his decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change and other climate-related policies.

“You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including many other places, the air is incredibly dirty, and when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small,” Trump told The Washington Post in an interview in November. “And it blows over and it sails over. I mean we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific.”

The United States has already launched pilot programs aimed at stemming the flow of waste into waterways in Peru, Jamaica and Panama, and Wheeler said that administration officials — along with those from Europe and Japan — are eager to determine which of the most promising ones could be launched in less-developed nations.

“What we need to do is go from the pilot phase to the implementation phase,” he said.

But Wheeler voiced less enthusiasm for the sort of plastic product bans that have gained traction in cities across the United States in recent years. He particularly took aim at bans on plastic straws, saying that they foster a false sense of complacency among Americans.

“The plastic straw bans, that’s not what’s creating the problem in the oceans,” he said. “That’s a drop in the bucket, as far as the amount of plastic. . . . And I’m concerned that if people think, ‘Well if I get rid of my plastic straw, then that solves the problem.' ”

Susan Ruffo, managing director of international initiatives at the Ocean Conservancy, said in a phone interview Monday that marine debris is the sort of environmental issue that transcends the partisan divide.

“We welcome anyone to the table on this who’s willing to put forth a positive solution,” Ruffo said. “Everyone agrees this is a problem. No one thinks plastics should be in the ocean.”

But Ruffo took issue with Wheeler’s dismissal of plastic straw bans, noting that straws consistently rank in the top 10 forms of plastics volunteers collect each year as part of the Ocean Conservancy’s international coastal cleanup.

“They may not rank at the top in terms of volume, but it is one of things that leaks the most, and tends to impact marine life the most. I wouldn’t discount it,” she said, adding that the United States still needs to do more to curb its own plastics waste.

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When it comes to the Paris agreement, Wheeler said he has explained to foreign leaders that even though the commitments under the pact are nonbinding, activists could use a provision in the Clean Air Act to sue the federal government if it fails to meet its pledged goal. Under the Obama administration, the United States promised to cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels.

“So if we were to move forward with the Paris climate accord, we’d be one of the only countries where the targets would end up being enforceable,” he said, adding that the United States is continuing to cut its carbon and methane emissions. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t doing something to reduce our CO2.”

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, on Monday called that explanation “a totally bogus legal argument.”

“That’s the legal argument that others made when they were trying to get Trump to pull out of Paris,” Meyer said, noting that the Paris agreement does obligate countries to make pledges on climate action and report on their progress, but that U.S. negotiators took pains to ensure that countries would not be legally obligated to achieve the goals they set.

At the upcoming G-20 meeting, Meyer said he expects a split similar to what happened at last year’s G-20 summit, when the United States refused to sign on to the climate goals of the rest of the world leaders. Rather, it carved out its own statement, reiterating its decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, while the other member nations consider it irreversible and are committed to its full implementation.

Much the same scenario unfolded at a gathering of G-7 leaders last year, when the United States refused to join statements by the other six nations underscoring their commitment to the Paris accord.

Meyer said the upcoming summit probably will highlight anew the Trump administration’s “utter isolation” on the issue internationally.

“It will indicate that the rest of the world continues to move ahead with Paris and the deep emissions reductions that are needed by mid-century,” he said, adding, “With or without the Trump administration.”