The new analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is a classic good news, bad news story, summed up in this chart:
The good news is that merely by extending existing energy policies, the United States could keep energy-related carbon dioxide emissions flat through 2040.
That’s also the bad news — for two reasons.
First, the anti-science, anti-government crowd has a stranglehold on federal policy for the foreseeable future, whereas the Extended Policies case assumes the Congress actively extends key policies including “the continuation of the production tax credit for wind, biomass, geothermal, and other renewable resources, and the investment tax credit for solar generation technologies.”
Second, as CAP’s Dan Weiss noted on CP in December, flatlining CO2 “would be an epic disaster for the United States and the rest of the planet”:
Such an outcome would certainly condemn the United States and the world to the most devastating impacts from climate change, including more fatalities and damages from increasingly ferocious and frequent extreme weather, more deaths and illness from smog, tropical diseases infecting people in northern latitudes, and the disruption of the world’s food production system.
It bears repeating that a 60% reduction by 2050 vs. 1990 levels is the target that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the rich countries (Annex I) should adopt if the goal is to stabilize at 550 ppm CO2-eq. I discussed the science underlying this at length in 2009.
Here’s the key chart from the full Working Group III report (Box 13.7, page 776):
The 550 ppm CO2-equivalent is about 450 ppm CO2 (because of the warming from the other greenhouse gases). It means ultimately “stabilizing” at 3°C (5.4°F) above preindustrial levels using the “best estimate” of climate sensitivity — see the IPCC’s Synthesis Report “Summary for Policymakers” (Table SPM.6). And that “stabilizing” assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks, like, say the thawing permafrost, which will likely add 0.4°F – 1.5°F to total global warming by 2100.
Thus, in the real world, 550 ppm CO2-equivalent is likely to be devastating to modern civilization, leading to widespread Dust-Bowlification and an ice free planet. So even a 60% reduction in U.S. emissions by mid-century isn’t sufficient.
A non-suicidal species would pursue something closer to 450 ppm CO2-eq or less — and that means taking U.S. emissions down more than 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. That would require us to be near 1 billion metric tons of CO2 around 2040, rather than flatlining at over 5 billion.
Through 2020, Obama can put the U.S. close to the sane path without Congress, by using the executive authority under the Clean Air Act — a plan spelled out in detail by the Natural Resources Defense Council. To stay anywhere near the 450 ppm path post-2020, we’d likely need a sane Congress, too.