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How Obama’s Keystone XL rejection adds momentum to the Paris climate talks

Saying that "the Keystone XL Pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States," President Obama rejected the much-debated project on Nov. 6. (Video: AP, Photo: KEVIN LAMARQUE/AP)

This story has been updated.

Timing is everything.

There have long been suspicions that President Obama and his administration were preparing to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline. However, the announcement on Friday, less than a month before the president travels to Paris to kick off the U.N.’s much anticipated climate conference, can hardly be coincidental.

In fact, say environmentalists and those closely watching the run-up to the meeting, it’s likely to give those talks major momentum — especially at their opening. (Granted, what happens near the end of the two-week negotiations — when tough and technical issues like climate financing and redress for the most vulnerable countries get dealt with — is another matter.)

[Obama rejects Keystone XL Pipeline, citing climate concerns]

There’s no doubt that President Obama is trying to shape a climate legacy and that showing leadership on all things climate related is his way of doing so. Accordingly, the President had already made a groundbreaking climate deal with Chinese premier Xi Jinping. Coming roughly a year ago, it neutralized what might otherwise have been the biggest issue in global climate talks — that is, what China will do.

And then, earlier this year, Obama’s administration delivered the finalized Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the U.S.’s push to cap its own emissions. This was all about walking the walk and cleaning up our own house.

So what was left when it came to showing leadership? Well, the major symbolic move of rejecting a pipeline that environmentalists have extensively rallied against, and that has come to symbolize the notion that many new fossil fuel projects won’t be able to go forward if the U.S. and world stay committed to the goal of not allowing warming beyond 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

“This is the last but also the biggest card that the president could play to compel other world leaders to take strong action in Paris next month,” says Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, which has long opposed the pipeline.

And not just that, says Brune: It makes a particular point about the long-term need for decarbonization, which includes leaving certain fuels in the ground. “This announcement is powerful in that it will show that the world is beginning to turn away from extreme energy sources, and it will provide significant momentum to a long term decarbonization goal,” Brune says.

Indeed, the President himself made this very point directly in his remarks Friday on the rejection of the pipeline. “Ultimately if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground, rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” Obama said.

Jake Schmidt, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees that the Keystone move is highly significant in light of international efforts to limit warming to 2 degrees. As he puts it by e-mail:

The oil in the project alone would account for 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MMTCO2e) per year, with the incremental increase of 27 MMTCO2e. Over the life of the project this would lead to an unacceptable amount of carbon pollution at a time when all estimates are saying that we are quickly burning through our remaining carbon budget. All studies that look at what can be burned in a 2 degrees C world show that tar sand reserves shouldn’t be developed.

Interestingly, though, if you look at rationale contained within the State Department’s just released determination that the Keystone XL project is not in the national interest, it isn’t centrally built around the idea that the emissions caused or enabled by Keystone XL will be very large and a direct climate problem. Rather, it’s that the global perception of encouraging development of a relatively dirty fuel would undermine the U.S.’s position of climate leadership, which would, in turn, undermine the willingness of other countries to cut their emissions too — and it’s through that pathway that the climate could ultimately be harmed.

Here’s the critical paragraph, in which the Department shifts from considering Keystone XL’s direct impacts on the climate to considering what its approval would say to the world on the eve of urgent climate negotiations:

President Obama has made clear that “[t]he net effects of this pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project can go forward.” While the permitting decision involves weighing many different policy considerations, a key consideration at this time is that granting a Presidential Permit for this proposed Project would undermine U.S. climate leadership and thereby have an adverse impact on encouraging other States to combat climate change and work to achieve and implement a meaningful global climate agreement. Strong climate targets and an effective global climate agreement would lead to a reduction in global GHG emissions that would have a direct and beneficial impact on the national security and other interests of the United States.

In other words, it turns out that the Keystone XL rejection — and more specifically the grounds for its rejection — proves that this is really all about showing that Obama is serious about climate change and wants the world to follow his leadership. And that turns out to be a very big statement for Paris indeed.

Thus, despite all the endless fights about the potential climate impact of Keystone XL, it turns out that in the end, it was the symbol and not the possible emissions that really counted. And that’s why rejecting Keystone — and especially in this way, at this time — says something very potent about how other countries assembling in Paris can trust the seriousness of President Obama as a leader willing to pull out all the stops on climate change.

“I think in some ways if there were any doubts that President Obama is doing all that he can in his power, they should be dispelled with the announcement that he has rejected Keystone,” says Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute.