Can Biden Actually Make the 50 Percent Emissions Cut Happen?

Grounding the ambition of the climate summit in policy design and implementation will be tough work.

President Joe Biden announced an ambitious new national climate target at the world leaders’ climate summit on April 22. He pledged to cut US carbon emissions in half by the end of this decade — a drop of 50 to 52 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels — and aim for net zero emissions by 2050.

Stopping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius will require an immediate global effort that can transform energy systems and make emissions plummet at rates never observed before in history. Photo by Tony Webster.

The new goal is a big deal because it formally brings together the many different ideas on infrastructure, the budget, federal regulatory policy, and disparate actions in the states and industry for transforming the US economy into a highly competitive, yet very green giant. It also signals to the rest of the world that “America is back” and prepared to work on climate change.

Stopping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius — the aim of the Paris climate agreement — will require an immediate global effort that can transform energy systems and make emissions plummet at rates never observed before in history. Statements from the 40 world leaders at the virtual summit reflected both ambitious visions for that future — and the reality that words don’t always match actions on the ground.

Formally, the new US target is what’s known under the Paris climate agreement as a “nationally determined contribution.” In effect, it is a nonbinding pledge to the rest of the world. Beyond the headline figures, Biden’s pledge pays attention to the need to adapt to the climate changes already underway and build resilience.

With the US pledge, about two-thirds of the current global emissions come from countries that have now committed to reach net zero emissions by mid-century.

We’ve both been involved with climate policy and the international negotiations for decades, and these new goals show real momentum.

But will the new US pledge have an impact on emissions that’s as huge as the pledge sounds?

Can the US meet its new goal?

Already there’s been a lot of gushing about the boldness of the US goal, by companies, advocacy groups, and academic think tanks, often pointing to studies that find a 50 percent emissions cut is achievable.

Our chief concern is industrial reality — cutting emissions by half within a decade implies transforming the electricity system, transportation, industry, and agriculture.

These systems don’t turn on a dime. The goal setting is the easy part. It is largely a combination of technical feasibility with political palatability. The tough work is getting it done.

Pretty much everything will need to line up quickly — policies that are credible and durable, along with industrial responses. As often happens with technological change, most analysts are overestimating how quickly things can transform in the near term, and probably underestimating how profound change will have to be into the more distant future.

The US government illustrated its new commitment in documents filed with the United Nations. The pledges use 2005 as the baseline. Source: UNFCCC.

The electricity sector is the key early mover in the US and globally. Research from the Berkeley Lab shows that, over the last 15 years, the US has slashed power-sector carbon emissions in half relative to projected levels.

The Biden administration now has a goal for electricity to be carbon-free by 2035. Nearly every study that shows a 50 percent drop in US emissions is feasible is based on the observation that the power sector will cut emissions at a fast clip.

For all the progress in electricity, pushing that sector to be net zero soon will create tensions and tradeoffs. For example, distress from the sharp decline of the coal industry is already evident in communities across Appalachia.
The new commitments were announced in the context of the White House’s first major diplomatic event on climate change — a meeting of 40 major emitting countries, including China, Russia, India, the UK, and several European countries.

Politics and a climate summit

The US is the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, and one of the highest in emissions per person. But its emissions are less than 15 percent of the global total, so it is essential that whatever happens in the US be linked to a global effort. That’s why credibility matters so much. If the US is to re-establish leadership on climate change, its efforts are only as good as followership by the rest of the world.

But the Biden administration has to move carefully.

Tempting as it is to tighten the screws on emissions, efforts that are too aggressive will easily become fodder for the political opponents and industries that have undermined climate efforts in the past.

The shift in climate politics is important to watch. Biden has a barely functional majority on Capitol Hill, and the real politics of climate change aren’t simply about the technical scenarios of cutting emissions with cleaner technologies. They are also about how society transitions.
The White House had high expectations for the summit, including expecting several countries to announce new commitments. The UK pledged just ahead of the summit to cut emissions 78 percent by 2035, and the EU announced a provisional deal on a 55 percent emissions cut by 2030.

The US still needs to prove itself

The virtual summit also drew Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — three frequent US adversaries and major contributors to climate change through fossil fuels or deforestation. Putin promised big action and to “significantly cut the accumulated volume of net emissions” in Russia, and Bolsonaro promised to protect the Amazon rainforest, but not end illegal deforestation for another 10 years. Both highlight how easy it is to promise great things at climate summits even when one’s track record points in the opposite direction.

Grounding this frenzied ambition in the messy work of policy design and implementation is far removed from a virtual event.

One indicator of the actual success of the summit may be China. US-China diplomacy in the run up to the UN Paris climate meeting was widely seen as essential to its success five years ago. This year, when presidential climate envoy John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart a few days ahead of the April 22 summit, the joint statement concluded with a somewhat generic agreement to cooperate on climate change and ensure the world meets the Paris goals.

After four years of the Trump administration’s antagonism toward climate efforts, and undermining of US credibility overseas, and with so much domestic work on climate still needed, a US-hosted summit may have been premature. The intense diplomatic efforts to pressure other countries to make announcements at the event seemed out of touch with the US need to get its house in order first.

The White House pledge is bold, but it remains long on adjectives and short on credible verbs. Whether it will have an impact on either domestic action or helping to convince the world that the US is a trusted and durable partner on climate change remains to be seen.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The Latest

A World at the Edge

What planet will our children and grandchildren inherit?

Tom Engelhardt

Coca-Cola Sued for False Advertising Over Sustainability Claims

The company is the number one plastic waste generator in the world, yet markets itself as green, suit alleges.

Zoe Loftus-Farren

Indigenous People Are on Frontlines of Colombian Uprising

Fed up with threats to lives and lands, Indigenous protesters are blockading roads and joining urban strikers across the country.

Ocean Malandra

Biden’s Justice40 Plan Offers Hope of a Fairer Environment. Can it work?

Administration is pledging to send 40 percent of the benefits of climate and environment spending to disadvantaged communities, but getting it right will be difficult.

Miranda Green The Guardian

Island in Russia’s Far East Launches Zero Emissions Experiment

Sakhalin Island, the size of Ireland, sets ambitious goal to transition to a low-carbon economy by 2025.

Aleksei Duel

Australia’s Merino Farmers Under Pressure to Manage Farms Sustainably

Key industry group promises to focus on improved animal welfare and better land management initiatives.

Alana Flood