The United States has an aggressive new commitment for fighting climate change: cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent relative to 2005 levels in less than a decade.
“The United States isn’t waiting; we are resolving to take action,” said President Joe Biden on Thursday, highlighting his plans for investing in agriculture to store carbon in soil, making electric vehicles, capping pipelines that leak methane, and building green hydrogen plants. “By maintaining those investments and putting these people to work, the United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half by the end of this decade.”
The new target is a step forward for the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, after China. And it’s meant to signal to the rest of the world that the US is jumping back into the 2015 Paris climate accord with both feet after withdrawing in late 2020.
Some climate change activists and analysts are arguing that it’s not enough. And there are already some misleading claims about the target that have taken root.
To put it in context, here are some key things to know.
What is an NDC? And what makes the new US climate target so special?
Under the 2015 Paris agreement, countries agreed to limit warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius compared to average global temperatures before the industrial revolution in the 1800s. The agreement also has a secondary target of limiting warming to less than 1.5 degrees C.
To achieve that goal, every signatory to the accord (nearly every country in the world) is required to act. But it’s voluntary, and every country gets to set their own targets.
A green forest at the edge of a dead brown expanse.
Those self-imposed targets are known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs. From the outset, it was clear that the first round of NDCs that countries came up with wouldn’t be enough to meet the Paris goals. But the idea was that over time, as technology improved and as urgency mounted, countries would become more ambitious.
The United States plays an outsize role in the process as the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, but also as the country that played a dominant role in shaping the Paris agreement to begin with. Previous attempts at organizing international climate agreements fell apart for many reasons, but a major hurdle was US objections to setting binding greenhouse gas reduction targets. The US also opposed letting some countries, particularly developing countries, off the hook for their emissions. Hence why every country has to produce an NDC but gets to set its own target.
But when the US officially exited the Paris climate agreement in November, it became the only country to back out, which was particularly frustrating for countries that joined and came up with targets at the US’s behest. So the new, more ambitious commitment from the US (following Biden’s reentry into the agreement in January) is an important way to rebuild trust.
The US issued its first NDC back in 2015. It aimed to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below the level of emissions produced in the year 2005. The new target aims to bring the US 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
According to the White House, these new goals are in line with keeping average warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“As we look at the trajectory, the question for us very much has been: How can you make it consistent with getting on track to hold a temperature increase to less than 2, well less than 2, and to try to keep 1.5 degrees in sight alive? And that looks like it is consistent,” said a senior administration official on a call with reporters on Wednesday.
Beyond the impact on warming, the goal could spur countries that don’t already have comparable goals to step up their own ambitions.
“That is an extraordinary step that should be commended, and emulated by everyone,” said Christiana Figueres, one of the main negotiators of the Paris climate agreement, in a statement on Thursday.
US officials, however, were vague about exactly how the country is mapping its route to its new climate goals. But a key component is going to be Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The proposal aims to ramp up clean energy and electric vehicles, and facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels, but it still needs to become bills that can be approved by Congress.
The US’s new climate target is not a doubling of ambition or halving of current emissions
While Biden framed the new commitment as cutting US emissions in half, there are some critical caveats.
Again, this is not the first US commitment to curb greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris agreement. The initial pledge made under President Obama was aimed at 2025. The new NDC is aimed at 2030.
If the US were to simply meet its previous commitment, it would be on track to reduce emissions roughly 38 percent by 2030. So the new target is actually a 12 to 14 percent increase from the previous goal, not a doubling. And, to be clear, the US is currently not on track to meet its previous NDC, let alone the new one.
The other thing to keep in mind is the baseline. The US target is pegged to 2005, a year when annual US greenhouse gas emissions peaked above 6 gigatonnes. By 2020, emissions had fallen by roughly 21 percent compared to 2005, to 5.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, although the Covid-19 pandemic fueled the unprecedented drop in emissions last year.
Emissions are expected to rise again in 2021 as the economy recovers. All of this is to say that the 50 to 52 percent reduction target is relative to where the US was 16 years ago, not where it is today, when emissions are lower. The new target is closer to a 42 percent reduction from 2021.
It’s the biggest US commitment yet, but it still may not be big enough
On one hand, if the US were to meet these new goals, it would still likely be the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter by the end of the decade. On the other hand, the new target represents an enormous reduction in emissions, about 2.1 gigatonnes in nine years. This is almost the entire output of India in a given year. It’s a vast financial, technological, and political challenge.
While meeting this goal will help bring the world closer to limiting global warming this century, it doesn’t fully match the US contribution to the problem. The US currently produces about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions but is responsible for the largest share of historical emissions.
Climate change is a cumulative problem; if one were to add up all the greenhouse gases the US has emitted, the US would top every other country. The largest share of human-produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now came from the US.
The energy that created those emissions helped the US become one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The US also continues to have some of the highest per capita emissions of any country. Now the impacts of climate change are here, raising sea levels, fueling extreme weather, and wreaking havoc across economies, and the countries that contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most.
That’s why some activists are arguing that the new NDC doesn’t go far enough. “As the world’s biggest historical emitter, the US has a responsibility to the most vulnerable nations on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA, in a statement. He added that a fairer US target would be closer to a 70 percent cut in emissions, coupled with financial support to developing countries suffering under climate change.
US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry envoy acknowledged on Thursday that there is still more the country could do to limit warming beyond the new NDC. “Is it enough? No. But it’s the best we can do today and prove we can begin to move,” Kerry said.
The US could pull this off, but it won’t be easy or cheap
The US has already seen a general decline in its greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade, but that came largely from replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas, which produces about half of the emissions per unit of energy. And before the Covid-19 pandemic, US emissions were beginning to creep up again.
President Biden, however, has set a target of making the entire US economy carbon neutral by 2050. In the meantime, he wants an entirely carbon-free power grid by 2035. That means even the natural gas plants will have to go, or will have to add carbon dioxide scrubbers. And to curb emissions by 50 percent relative to 2005 by 2030, the US would have to start taking drastic action right away.
A number of researchers and environmental groups have already analyzed whether such a target is feasible (see this Twitter thread highlighting the various papers out there looking at the new target). Almost all of them show that it is possible with our current technologies.
For example, an analysis by Energy Innovation found that the US would have to phase out all of its remaining coal power plants and halve its natural gas use over the next decade. The country would also have to dramatically increase its energy efficiency and electrify vehicles. The analysis doesn’t lay out a figure for the outlay but estimates that these changes would add $570 billion per year to the US economy via creating new jobs and avoiding pollution and health problems associated with fossil fuels.
According to a December study by researchers at Princeton University, the US is poised to spend $9.4 trillion over the next decade on energy infrastructure on its current trajectory. But getting on a path of net-zero emissions would just add an additional $300 billion to the price tag, raising it by 3 percent.
Other research has shown that the health benefits alone from getting off of fossil fuels are massive and would more than pay for the transition toward clean energy.
However, while there are massive health and economic benefits in switching toward clean energy, those benefits are dispersed over the whole population and spread out over years. To start on the journey toward the new 2030 target, the US would have to start making major investments and changes now — phasing out coal, building electric vehicle chargers, restoring ecosystems that can sequester carbon, pricing carbon, funding research and development to solve thorny technology problems, and setting new efficiency standards. That’s a political challenge, and it remains to be seen whether Biden has enough political capital to start this process.
The United States is not the only game in town
To limit climate change, the whole world needs to act not only to zero out greenhouse emissions but also to begin withdrawing them from the air by the middle of the century.
At the Earth Day summit, other world leaders highlighted their own new targets. Canada is now aiming to reduce its emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Japan is aiming for 44 percent under the same benchmarks. And China is expecting that its emissions will continue to rise over the next decade but will peak before 2030 and decline thereafter, reaching net-zero emissions by 2060.
These new commitments will be formalized at the next major international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, later this year. In total, about 59 countries have set some sort of benchmark for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
But the total global commitments to date are still not enough to reach the 1.5-degree target, and that target is slipping further out of reach every day. That’s going to be even more challenging as lower-income parts of the world develop. About 13 percent of the planet’s population, 940 million people, still don’t have access to electricity. They desperately need energy, and fossil fuels are often the only sources available to them.
And many of these targets are set decades in the future. It’s the interim targets where the rubber will meet the road and more tangible results will be visible, yet many countries are reluctant to commit to specific climate benchmarks over the next five to 10 years.
So a fresh round of more ambitious targets for limiting emissions has to be met with real-world action and meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. There is intense global momentum for action on climate change, but that has yet to bear out in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have now crossed 420 parts per million, the highest levels in human history. The planet has already warmed by at least 1 degree Celsius, and those effects are already visible in the ice caps, torrential rainfall, and wildfires. Some countries are certainly more responsible for climate change than others, but as Biden said, “no nation can solve this crisis on their own.”