Climate

This Is How The U.S. Plans To Tackle Climate Change In The Next Decade And Beyond

CREDIT: flickr/ John Gillespie

President Obama at the UN Climate Summit, Sept 23, 2014.

Tuesday, March 31 is the informal deadline for countries to submit their climate commitments to the post-2020 United Nations’ climate agreement — the latest, and one of the most important, steps toward the final round of talks to be held in Paris at the end of the year.

On Friday, Mexico formally submitted its post-2020 target, and the U.S. is expected to submit their plan by the end of the day Tuesday, according to White House officials. The plan will be very similar to the pledge the U.S. made late in 2014 in a joint statement with China to reduce emissions by roughly 28 percent by 2025.

By meeting the deadline, the U.S. can help indicate it is serious about international climate commitments, even as domestic progress is slowed due to congressional inaction and fossil fuel industry pushback.

“The U.S. is seen by the world as the country most needing to take on commitments on climate change, and until about two years ago, the least willing to do so,” Timmons Roberts, a climate change social scientist at Brown University, told ThinkProgress. “By resisting acting, the U.S. gave excuses to all the other foot-dragging nations to do as little as possible.”

On top of the American and Mexican commitments, the entire 28-member European Union, as well as Switzerland and Norway, are the only other countries to have put forth their commitments ahead of the deadline. Added up these countries account for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. As Reuters reports, other major GHG emitters including China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Canada have indicated that they will wait until closer to the Paris summit in December to announce their targets.

Mexico announced it would reduce its GHG emissions by 22 percent and its emissions of black carbon or soot by 51 percent by the year 2030. It also said it would peak its emissions by 2026. The E.U. made the commitment early in March that it would reduce GHGs by 40 percent or more below 1990 levels by 2030.

The U.S.’s forthcoming commitment matches up with the joint pledge last November with China, the world’s largest GHG emitter, to reduce GHG emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China, for its part, committed to peak CO2 emissions around 2030 and to increase its use of renewable energy to around 20 percent of the total energy mix by 2030.

Roberts said that the U.S.-China pledges were “very impactful” and showed how “ambition can look different for developing vs. developed nations.”

“By collaborating with developing nations like China and Mexico the U.S. is helping them ‘make the road by walking,'” said Roberts. Walking that road will be far from easy: after submitting pledges the U.S. has to show how it’s going to meet them as well as what happens if Republicans eventually take over the White House, according to Roberts.

Ken Berlin, President & CEO of the Climate Reality Project, echoed Roberts statements, saying that in order to follow through on its commitment, the U.S. must issue “strong, final rules for reducing carbon emissions from new and existing power plants” and follow through on its $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund.

The U.S.’s commitment “will assure the rest of the international community that the world’s biggest economy and second-biggest emitter is taking action, and that their own commitments will not be for naught,” Berlin told ThinkProgress. “If other nations were waiting for the U.S. to take the first step, they can now come forward.”

Berlin pointed out that since the U.S.-China pledge last year, “China has already committed to capping coal use by 2020, announced that they will open their national carbon market next year, and set a target of almost 18 GW of added solar power capacity this year.”

After Mexico made its announcement on Wednesday, the U.S. and Mexico also agreed to set up a joint task force on climate policy cooperation in which President Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto reaffirmed their commitment to addressing global climate change, “one of the greatest threats facing humanity.”

Countries are submitting their post-2020 pledges to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Meant to help each country propose targets most suited to their needs, the INDCs vary for developed and developing countries and can include anything from from sector-wide emissions cuts to energy intensity goals to renewable energy targets.

According to the World Resources Institute, INDCs combine a bottom-up system in which countries put forward goals that fit within their national contexts, with the top-down system intended to reduce global emissions enough to limit average temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius.

Scientists have warned that the deadline to keep temperature increases below the agreed-upon goal of 2 degrees Celsius is fast-approaching and may have already passed. In any case, preventing further damage and more dire outcomes requires dramatic action, including a sustained shift to renewables and possibly the deployment of cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report warned of the “high confidence” that “irreversible impacts” will occur even with action in the future. With these stark physical realities in mind, those at the climate talks must focus on the nuts and bolts of a politically plausible, economically feasible treaty.

“So far, based on INDCs that have come out and what we expect we know we’re going to get about halfway to 2 degrees under the best case scenario,” Rebecca Lefton, Director of Policy and Research at Climate Advisers, told ThinkProgress. “Which is not surprising, because this is just what countries can do unilaterally with self-financed pollution targets.”

A recent analysis by Climate Advisers found that a “strong set of pledges” on top of current commitments from the U.S., China and the E.U. would deliver around 50 percent of the emissions reductions need for a likely chance of limiting warming to 2°C.

Lefton said that bilateral international partnerships can help close the gap in these multilateral international agreements.

“That’s where we should scale up, and where the U.S. can do more,” she said.

India is another major concern in the talks, as rapid development and a growing population will make the country a top emitter in the near future. Lefton said that India’s INDC will likely include a conditional component — the country is banking on international investment to help spur renewable energy growth and both reduce GHGs and improve local air quality.

While Mexico and the U.S. step up with commitments, the third major North American country, Canada, is standing by the sidelines for the time being. A spokesperson for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq recently told The Canadian Press that “Canada wants to ensure we have a complete picture of what the provinces and territories plan before we submit.”

These remarks are far from encouraging. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has gone from a bastion of green politics to having the semblance of a petrostate as oil and gas developments have surged. Currently Canada is on track to badly miss its 2020 target for cutting GHG emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

This is the same target currently held by the U.S. — a target the Obama administration has been aggressively pursuing through its Climate Action Plan by doing everything from reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants, to promoting clean energy and fuel efficiency, to engaging in far-reaching conservation efforts.

According to the Obama Administration, U.S. carbon emissions have fallen by 10 percent from 2007 to 2013, representing “the largest absolute emissions reduction of any country in the world.”

Under Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s direction, Australia has followed Canada’s lead in distancing itself from the progressive environmental policies it was once heralded for. In the latest in what has been a long run of anti-climate actions, environmentalists are outraged over the Abbott government’s recent paper on its post-2020 emission reduction targets.

The document states that the government will release its post-2020 targets in mid-2015, however the anger comes not from the date, but the substance: the paper does not mention the 2C target, but rather pursues a scenario that could lead to 3.6C of warming.

“A world of four degrees warming would be disastrous for Australia’s economy, security and environment,” said John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute in Australia, in a statement. “Current global policies do have us on the path but, unlike in Australia, other major emitters are moving to increase not decrease credible climate action.”