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The White House
Credit: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock
31 March 2015 16:25

US climate pledge promises to push for maximum ambition

Simon Evans


Simon Evans

31.03.2015 | 4:25pm
COP21 ParisUS climate pledge promises to push for maximum ambition

The US has set out its contribution to a new international climate change agreement, due to be agreed in Paris this December.

It promises to cut emissions by 26% to 28% in 2025 against a 2005 baseline, confirming an existing goal  jointly announced with China in November. It says the US will make best efforts to cut emissions by the maximum 28% by 2025.

The expert consensus is that the pledge can be met without new climate laws being passed by the US Congress, but that further executive action will be required. This puts the target at risk after next year’s presidential election, if a Republican is elected.

Carbon Brief runs through the key points of the US intended national determined contribution (INDC) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Road to Paris

INDCs are due to be submitted by all parties well in advance of UN climate talks in Paris in December. Carbon Brief has a detailed explainer on the history, context and expectations for the INDC process  here.

The US is the second major economy to file its pledge, following the  EU submission earlier this month. They are joined by Mexico, Norway and Switzerland meaning 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions are now covered by pledges.

The New Climate Institute, a climate policy research organisation, says it expects  submissions to cover around half of global emissions by June, once China’s INDC is filed, rising to around 75% by the time the Paris talks take place.

The US INDC says:

“The United States is strongly committed to reducing greenhouse gas pollution.”

As with the EU pledge, the US has not gone beyond its already-announced climate goals. It  promises to cut emissions by 17% by 2020 and by between 26% and 28% by 2025, both against a 2005 baseline.

These targets are slightly lower than  planned by the US in 2010, but, unlike that earlier range,  international carbon offsets are excluded, at least for now (the submission says “at this time”). The US target includes land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) as expected.

The US INDC says it will “make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%”. This is similar to  wording from China around peaking emissions by 2030, but making “best efforts” to peak earlier.

As expected, the US INDC does not include any reference to adaptation or climate finance, as many developing countries had been calling for.

Heather Kaplan, climate change manager for Oxfam America says in a statement that the US must now shift its attention to sclaing up climate finannce with a focus on adaptation.

Fairness and ambition

In order to meet its goals, the US will have to double its rate of emissions reductions from 1.2% per year between 2005 and 2020, up to between 2.3% and 2.8% between 2020 and 2025, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Dr Niklas Höhne, founding partner of the New Climate Institute, tells Carbon Brief:

“The pledge significantly changes the trajectory they’re on, which sends a positive signal and is a good step in the right direction. Whether it’s a fair share of global action is another question.”

The US says its target is “fair and ambitious”. It says substantial emissions cuts are required to get on a two degrees path and that its 2025 target is consistent with “a straight line emission reduction pathway from 2020 to deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80% or more by 2050”. It does not say if the target is consistent with two degrees.

Oxfam’s Kaplan says in a statement:

“While this contribution does move us closer to the two degree pathway, it does not represent the level of ambition needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

Analysis by Climate Action Tracker suggests the US pledge is not consistent with a two degrees path and can only be considered a “fair share” of action if the cost of reducing US emissions is high in global terms. To make the pledge compatible with a two degrees pathway, other countries would need to make more ambitious efforts than the US.

There are many ways to allocate responsibility for climate action, for instance, accounting for current wealth or historic emissions. Some alternative approaches to climate fair shares would require significantly more effort from the US, potentially reaching zero emissions by 2025.

Meeting the pledge

The WRI says the US targets are achievable with “aggressive implementation” of already proposed policies. Jennifer Morgan, global director of the WRI’s climate change programme says the US pledge is “serious and achievable” using existing federal authority, in other words without Congressional action to pass new laws.

However, concrete actions on methane and hydrofluorocarbons are lacking in Obama’s climate action plan, according to Climate Action Tracker. It also says large uncertainties around land-use emissions mean the targets might not be hit.

Although greenhouse gas emissions had been falling in the US, recent official figures show fossil fuel emissions increased slightly in 2013 and 2014. This trend reversal hints at the limitations of Obama’s climate plans.

If fully implemented, current US plans should be sufficient to meet the 2020 target, Höhne says, but the 2025 goal will require further action. A key obstacle is the unwillingness of the US Congress to pass climate legislation and to attempt to actively obstruct Obama’s plans.

Obama’s plans rest largely on the application of formal regulatory processes, the WRI says, rather than executive orders from the president, which could be easily reversed by his successor. Yet court challenge delays and Congressional attempts to amend federal budgets are a certainty, even if the Democrats survive for a third term in next year’s presidential election.

Höhne says:

“If all of the measures in the plan are implemented by the current administration, that’s quite robust. Government agencies will implement the plans as instructed, unless they are told otherwise. If the government changes, there’s a huge question as to this new [2025] target. That’s a clear danger if the government changes at the next election.”

ClimateWire asks four key questions of the US pledge. One is whether the US will be able to convince the rest of the world its climate plans won’t unravel after 2016. Christian Science Monitor looks at a similar question.

Greater ambition

The US pledge says its accounting in the land sector will take account of harvested wood products using guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It says it may exclude emissions from natural disturbances, for example, droughts or pest invasion.

Doug Boucher, director of climate research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells Carbon Brief it is “disappointing” the land sector is included within the “up to 28% by 2025” target. He says there would have been scope to push the target several percentage points higher through land-sector effort.

Some of this could be achieved without Congressional authority, Boucher adds, for instance, through management of the US national forest and other public lands.

Analysis from Greenpeace suggests the US could, in theory, cut emissions much further and faster than Obama has promised, with a 40% reduction by 2025. The New Climate Institute says further reductions could have a range of co-benefits for the economy, for jobs and in terms of reduced health impacts from air pollution.

However, theory is not the same as practice. Höhne says:

“There is definitely more possible [on US emissions reductions]. From a technical perspective, quite a lot is possible because the US has the highest per capita emissions. If you ask how fast can this be implemented, again there is potential to do more. But the political potential? What Obama has put on the table is already at the limit of what is politically feasible.”

The US submission sets out all the regulatory actions taken since 2009 to tackle emissions through vehicle efficiency standards, Obama’s clean power plan and beyond. All were taken using existing laws or executive orders issued by the president. This shows the limits to US action, and the challenge of raising global ambition towards a two degrees goal.

Image: The White House. 

Update 1 April - We added links to additional stories on the US INDC. Update 16:50 - We added further reactions.

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