President Joe Biden pledged Thursday that the United States would slash its output of climate-changing carbon gases at least 50% below 2005 levels by the end of this decade in a bid to renew the effort to overhaul the global economy and stave off catastrophic warming.
The new emissions target, set to be unveiled at a two-day virtual summit the White House convened around Earth Day, nearly doubles the reductions the Obama administration pledged as part of the United States’ contributions to the 2015 Paris climate accord.
The goal ranges from a minimum of 50% to up to 52%. The U.S. emitted 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon in 2019, down 13% from 2005 levels.
On a call with reporters Wednesday night, administration officials said Argentina, Canada and Japan already agreed to deeper carbon cuts as a result of the “significant leverage” the new U.S. pledge afforded.
“All of this was only made possible because the U.S. is taking action at home and working with humility and purpose to restore global climate leadership,” the official said.
The increased speed and depth of the carbon cuts reflect how dire climate models now look, 21 years into the 21st century, after four years of delay while Donald Trump occupied the White House.
Disasters fueled by global warming are mounting, tides are devouring shorelines and carbon emissions are set to soar again this year after a pandemic-induced dip. Now the world’s largest economy and biggest historic emitter is scrambling to make up for lost time.
Biden’s goal on emissions “is a bold step,” said J. Marshall Shepherd, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Georgia. “What is clear is that dramatic reductions in carbon emissions will need to be a part of any solutions equation.”
Transformation, If You Can Keep It
The Biden administration has begun to lay out an ambitious regulatory agenda that begins with rewriting rules on power plants and automobiles, the top two sources of carbon emissions. The White House asked Congress to fund a $2.3 trillion infrastructure overhaul that includes five times as much funding for climate-related investments as the Obama administration won in 2009.
A senior administration official said the plan submitted Thursday to the United Nations was a “high-level summary” of “opportunities that translate into multiple pathways” to reach the 2030 goal. The document, the official said, would not provide specific goals for different economic sectors or pollution sources. But the White House’s National Climate Task Force, the official added, would outline a sector-by-sector strategy later this year.
“As much as I’d love to say we know what 2030 is going to look like with certainty, the reality is our ability to achieve continues to be improved every single day by the innovation we’re seeing, even in the hard-to-decarbonize sectors,” the official said.
The official pointed to the pollution cuts cities and states made even as the Trump administration gutted emissions rules, along with the continued decline in clean technologies prices as evidence that a future administration could not undo the progress.
Yet there is a consensus among policy experts that the U.S. is only likely to make and sustain those steep cuts beyond Biden’s four-year term if the Democrats who control Congress by razor-thin margins pass legislation to cement those climate targets in law.
Enacting a clean energy standard to mandate 80% carbon-free electricity by 2030 and 100% by 2035, as Biden has said he wants to do, could help get the U.S. far along the path to cutting its emissions in half by the end of the decade.
But a standard alone won’t be enough to shutter all remaining coal-fired plants, said Robbie Orvis, the director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation, a climate and energy policy think tank based in San Francisco. He suggested specific rules to phase out coal and federal financing to aid in plant closures.
“A clean energy standard on its own will not squeeze out all the coal by 2030,” he said. “If we don’t eliminate coal by 2030, it’s very hard to achieve a 50% reduction. It might be impossible.”
Part of the focus on the power sector, Orvis said, comes from the uncertainties left from policies to encourage housing developers to electrify all new construction and drivers to switch to electric vehicles. Even with incentives, relying too heavily on the relatively slow rate at which landlords replace heating systems and car owners buy new models could threaten the emissions target.
The same is true of heavy industry, which makes up nearly a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In an analysis this week, Energy Innovation projected that hydrogen and carbon-capture technology could mitigate some of that pollution. But Orvis said breakthroughs in both areas are still needed, along with adding more emphasis on power plants and vehicles.
The Biden administration could face significant roadblocks at the local and state level, particularly in states where Republicans control the legislature and are proposing bills to discourage renewable energy and preserve coal use. California’s struggles over the past decade to increase housing density around transit hubs and build more trains highlight the ways in which municipal control of land use could scuttle even well-funded state or federal plans, said Linda Shi, an urban planning and climate adaptation researcher at Cornell University.
“The Biden administration will get more done by changing systemic rules that they control at the federal level, such as through carbon taxes, gas prices, and or negotiating changing industry standards with the National Associations of Home Builders, Realtors, insurers and lenders,” she said.
Beyond The U.S.
Though the new U.S. target sets a benchmark for domestic policy changes, it’s also meant to pressure other countries to be more ambitious in cutting emissions from energy, farming and transportation systems.
Though the U.S. is now the No. 2 emitter, behind China, it is responsible for the majority of carbon that accumulated in the atmosphere over the past two centuries. That has drawn pushback from poorer nations who say it’s unfair to bar them from burning fossil fuels to lift their populations out of poverty just because the U.S. and European countries already devoured the planet’s so-called carbon budget.
“If we don’t eliminate coal by 2030, it’s very hard to achieve a 50% reduction. It might be impossible.”
Helping those countries to modernize with renewable energy and other clean technologies will be necessary to keep warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, beyond which climate models project catastrophic warming. (Global temperatures are already 1.1 degrees higher on average than in the years before humans began burning fossil fuels at an industrial scale in the late 18th century.)
“Any serious proposal will also have to address the development of an export market for green technology, such as carbon-free energy, carbon capture and energy storage,” said Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “otherwise the greatly expanding energy consumption by rapidly developing nations will swamp any reductions we are able to make domestically.”
The United Nations’ Green Climate Fund could develop a baseline for providing those technologies. The fund, agreed to as part of the Paris accord, was meant to offer $100 billion to poorer countries to build clean infrastructure. Yet nearly six year later, rich countries have pledged barely 10% of the financing required. The U.S. promised $3 billion under President Barack Obama and paid out just $1 billion before Trump took office and canceled future payments. Biden requested just $1.2 billion from Congress to make up the difference.
The White House officials made no mention of the climate pledges as part of the call on Wednesday.
Reaching net-zero emissions by the middle of the century still carries significant risks.
Some countries and corporations have offset carbon emissions by buying huge areas of territory in Africa and Latin America, forcing native people off their lands in what has been called acts of “cultural genocide” and “carbon colonialism.” Advocates representing people in many of those countries said they were bracing themselves to debate the issue ahead of the summit.
“Our members’ position on a central aspect of the net zero fallacy is clear: No land-based offsets for fossil fuel emissions,” said Donald Lehr, a consultant for the nonprofit Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance. “So-called ‘nature-based solutions’ must not be used to reach net zero emissions through offsetting.”
Yet a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letter showed that, even under optimistic scenarios for slashing emissions through renewable energy and eliminating harmful industrial farming, the world would need to remove 400 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to prevent disastrous heating.
“Climate change-wise, there is so much inertia in the system that enhancing [greenhouse gas] capture… will also be needed,” said Richard Perez, an atmospheric scientist at the State University of New York at Albany.
Methods to remove that carbon vary, though one that has gained prominence in recent years is a technology known as direct air capture. The machines function like giant fans that suck carbon molecules out of the atmosphere through chemical reactions, transforming the heat-trapping gas into a form that can be injected underground for storage or used for new purposes, such as carbonating soda. The trouble is that the technology, at present, is extremely expensive and energy intensive, raising the ire of environmentalists who are already suspicious of the interest oil companies have shown in the machines.
But as demands for the U.S. to do more to clean up the cumulative carbon mess it created grow, including from high-ranking officials in India, major investments in researching carbon removal technology could play an important role.
“The U.S. should do the right thing and invest in carbon capture and carbon removal technologies,” said Arvind Ravikumar, an assistant professor of sustainable energy development at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. “If not for immediate carbon reductions, then as a measure of global carbon equity.”
Even that, some scientists say, offers little guarantee of staying within 1.5 degrees Celsius. Preventing more destructive warming could require more radical measures. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine last month said the U.S. should start funding a research program to study the feasibility of geoengineering the climate, likely by injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to dim the sun. It’s an intervention so radical and untested that even conducting research on possible methods to carry it out generates fiery controversy.
But even if the U.S. stays on the path of halving its carbon emissions by 2030, it would still “probably not” keep warming from exceeding the 1.5-degree target, said Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University.
“In my humble opinion, and some people disagree with me, 1.5 degrees Celsius is a lost cause unless we decide to deploy solar geoengineering,” Dessler said. Biden’s plan “is more in line with 2 degrees Celsius, though. So if that’s your goal, then this is encouraging.”