After years of climate inaction, the United States has finally pledged to slash emissions – a pledge that will require sweeping changes to the US’s energy and transportation sector in just a few years.
President Joe Biden spoke at a virtual summit with the world leaders, outlining an aggressive target to reduce its emissions by 50% to 52% from a baseline of 2005 emissions. This is nearly double the target set by the Obama administration in 2015 – which the US wasn’t on track to meet in the first place, according to an analysis by Climate Action Tracker.
The 2030 climate goal will be formalized in a document known as the Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC. This is a public commitment to address climate change made by each country that signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, which the US formally left last year under the Trump administration and reentered this year.
Countries agreed under the Paris Agreement to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while also aiming at 1.5º if possible. This half-degree would make a huge difference for the environment, but achieving it means global emissions will have to reach a peak as soon as possible and decline quickly.
“Scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade – this is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” Biden said at the summit. “We must try to keep the Earth’s temperature to an increase of 1.5C. The world beyond 1.5 degrees means more frequent and intense fires, floods, droughts, heatwaves and hurricanes.”
A new commitment
When the Paris Agreement was first created during the Obama administration, the US pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 2005 levels by the year 2025. Plans got derailed by former president Trump’s dismissal over climate change and its decision to roll back many federal efforts to reduce the country’s emissions.
The US is the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), producing about 5.41 billion metric tons in 2018. China emits nearly twice that amount, but on a per capita basis, it is far behind the US. Climate experts have repeatedly said the world’s major economies need to scale back their emissions to limit the rise of global temperatures and avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.
Right after taking office, Biden restored dozens of environmental safeguards abolished by Trump and agreed to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Now it was time to update its NDC. Campaigners and climate experts had pressured the government to set a goal of at least a 50% reduction in emissions, to which Biden has now official committed.
In a statement, the US government said the target is consistent with the 1.5ºC goal of the Paris Agreement and will help the country become carbon neutral by 2050. The government said to have analyzed how each sector of the economy could reduce emissions, consulting with all sectors so to have everyone on board with the target.
The federal, state, local, and tribal governments have “many tools” available to work with civil society and the private sector in order to meet the new target, the government said. Emissions can be reduced from the transportation sector, forests and agriculture, energy and industrial processes while creating good-paying jobs.
“Many would think that that’s not doable. But I would argue that there’s opportunities for us to be able to be very aggressive in what it is going to take for that opportunity,” Biden’s national climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, told NPR hours before the start of the climate summit. “This is not a challenge that we should shy away from.”
Biden has already said he wants the US electricity grid to run 100% on clean sources such as solar and wind by 2035 in order to meet its goals, anticipating a massive increase in renewable energy and electric car production. Nevertheless, he has shied away from mandating all vehicles to be zero emissions, as governors have asked him.
Back in the game, but still short
The virtual climate summit, set to continue on Friday, was called by Biden as a way to renew the leadership of the US on climate change and rally other world leaders to set their own aggressive targets — after other countries were understandably concerned after the US lack of action under Trump. Countries will also meet in November at the UN climate summit COP26 to continue discussing how to accelerate climate action.
At the summit, South Africa’s President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa said everyone was “delighted to have the US back” on climate action, while United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Biden’s new climate commitment was “game-changing” and offered a blunt retort to those who question the need to address climate change.
However, the level of excitement wasn’t shared by civil society organizations in the US. Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid, said in a statement that the new climate target is “deeply insufficient to meet the realities of the climate crisis,” asking instead for 70% emissions cut by the Biden administration by 2030.
Sriram Madhusoodanan, US Climate Campaign Director at Corporate Accountability, said in a statement that the proposed NDC “just doesn’t cut it” and that the US should “own up” to its historical responsibility for “fueling” the climate crisis. That would mean “bold, deep and real” emissions cuts by the Biden administration, she added.
Meanwhile, Jean Su, the Energy Justice Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the new climate pledge “falls woefully short” of what’s necessary to tackle the climate emergency. The US is “the largest historic polluter” and has to do “its fair share”, also proposing a 70% emissions reduction instead of the current 50%.
Manish Bapna, Interim President and CEO of the World Resources Institute (WRI), said in a statement that in order to re-establish itself as a global leader, the US has to complement its emissions reduction target with a larger financial support for developing countries. This could unlock further global action to tackle the climate crisis, she added.
As Biden, other world leaders offered similarly dire assessments of the threats posed by the climate crisis but only a few outlined aggressive new targets. Canada committed to cutting emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, an increase from the previous 30% target, while Japan pledge to reduce emissions 46%, up from its earlier goal of 26% by 2030.
Two of the world’s biggest emitters that also attended the summit, China and India, didn’t outline new targets, which is perhaps an even greater concern. They emphasized their current commitments, such as China’s carbon neutrality goal by 2060, and said they face larger obstacles to get climate action on track compared to the US and other Western countries.
Ahead of the climate summit, European lawmakers and member states reached a deal to reduce emissions by “at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. This is lower than the 60% the Parliament had earlier proposed. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the commitment pus the EU on a “green path” to become the 1st climate-neutral continent. Per capita, CO2 emissions in Europe are already almost two times lower than in the US.
Comparing climate pledges is tricky as it depends on the year you start counting on. The US will measure its reductions from 2005, which is when the country’s fossil fuel emissions reached a peak. But European countries do it mostly from 1990, when emissions started to drop because of the collapse of the polluting Communist economies.
A study by the Rhodium group estimated that if every country would meet its goals, the per capita emissions of the US would decline and converge with China’s by 2030. But both countries’ per capita emissions would still be twice that of Europe’s. That’s why environmentalists have argued the US should have picked a more ambitious target.
Getting to at least 50% emissions reductions by 2030 would require the US to adopt sweeping new policies and cut emissions every year at an unprecedented rate, studies have shown. Actions could include more wind and solar power, convincing people to buy more electric cars and forcing fossil fuel companies to cut emissions of methane.
Still, none of these measures have been approved by Congress yet, so there’s a long way to go. But the biggest uncertainty is the fact that Biden’s term in office ends in 2024. What would happen if a new president like Trump is elected who rejects climate action? Only future will tell whether Biden’s goal is met. For everyone’s sake, we all hope it succeeds.