U.S.’s Weak New 2030 Emissions Target Shows Americans Have Nothing to Fear from the Paris Climate Deal (1)

–Five ways the U.S. climate pledge is weak, weak, weak
–As the UN calls for ambitious climate pledges at intersessional talks beginning this week, the U.S. contribution is full of holes

Opinion by Mathew Carr

June 1-2, 2021 — LONDON: History will show it was one of President Donald Trump’s biggest lies. The Paris climate deal was a bad agreement for the United States.

No it wasn’t. There was no reason for the U.S. to pull out, except to make a grand gesture. And no it isn’t, now that America is back in.

The reason why is because the Paris climate deal’s main elements are voluntary. Ambition is voluntary on a country-by-country basis, even if the overarching target of keep global warming to below 1.5C actually is ambitious, if not impossible.

The nature of the U.S.’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) to Paris shows why it’s no United Nations deal that should instill fear in Aunt Agatha in Chicago. Here is the country’s own depiction of its target:


It’s true that this chart makes the 2030 target, for a 50-52% cut on 2005 levels, seem at least a little ambitious. (For the U.S. rationale, see link in notes below)

Yet, here are five reasons why it’s not really very ambitious at all.

  1. It’s a single-year target.

The U.S. target is a “single-year” target. That means it’s only commiting to reduce emissions that year — in 2030 itself.

The NDC could not be clearer:

It does not even say “by 2030”. So, to comply, the U.S. does not really need to cut emissions much at all 2021-2029. Indeed, it could keep emissions at current levels and use “flexibility” options in the Paris agreement to offset emissions in 2030. That would mean buying 2.7 billion tons or so of offsets to ensure “net” effective emissions in 2030 are 3.7 billion tons, about half of the 2005 level. See this mocked-up chart:

Low-Ball U.S. Paris Target “We Comply” Scenario

Shaded bars assume the U.S. does not cut its emissions. Pink hatched area shows the 2.7 billion tons of offsets retired potentially to achieve the current U.S. Paris emissions target.

I’m not saying this scenario is a likely scenario. My point is it’s one possible way the U.S. can say it’s complied with the NDC that the Biden-Harris administration chose to propose. Each country’s NDC is it’s own choice. This is not something that is happening to the U.S.

The Biden-Harris team need to do a better job showing that this UN deal is attractive to U.S. voters (because it ultimately cuts their costs and provides them with opportunities such as well-paying jobs). The administration needs to spend a lot of time and money to overcome misinformation that the UN is bad. And they need to do it quickly.

Current emission credits are valued at about $3 a ton, so the total cost through 2030 of the U.S. NDC could be as little as $8.1 billion, or $2.45 per American per year, based on that price.

Even at $160 per ton (energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie says this is the price needed to keep temperatures from reaching more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels) the total cost would be $432 billion for the 10 years, or $131 per year per American. Not so scary, right, especially given the $6 trillion being made available by the U.S. for the post-pandemic recovery?

(What if Mr Trump becomes president again in 2024? When I run this scenario by U.S friends, their common reaction is something like the following: “If Trump gets back in we have bigger problems than NDC ambition.” Such an inward-looking American response — ha.)

Offsets will be available through Article 6 of the Paris deal (or not). And even if UN envoys fail to agree rules of Article 6, the U.S. can probably decide to implement its own emissions-reduction programs, which it could DECIDE to approve whichever way it wants. That’s how flexible Paris is, (as I said, especially if there is no agreement going forward to put more meat on the Paris bones. Paris right now is a skinny skeleton of a deal). The ball is in the country’s court. See number 5 of the five reasons.

2. The U.S target is much weaker than the EU equivalent (which itself is not that ambitious).

So the Biden-Harris target for the U.S. in 2030 (single year) is about 3.7 billion tons. That’s 42% less than the 1990 level (which is about the same as the level today), according to Climate Action Tracker. The EU equivalent is for a 55% cut. The U.K. is 68%. Europe doesn’t do single-year targets. It does budgets, covering every year, which limits the loop holes made possible by single-year targets.

3. The U.S.’s Biden-Harris administration has chosen to use 2005 emissions as its baseline. That’s its peak. See this comment in the Financial Times from May 7, 2021, which is a pretty nice takedown:

Niklas Höhne, founding partner of the NewClimate Institute, a non-profit think-tank which is behind the Climate Action Tracker project: “The US has used the base year 2005 because that’s the year with the highest emissions, [from which] you get the highest reduction. There’s a natural tendency to propose [targets] in the way that makes it looks positive.” Using historic baseline years means a certain share of the climate goals have already been achieved by each country, making it unclear which countries are making the most ambitious promises to reduce human impact on the climate, from today’s levels. See link 1 below.

This choice reveals how the U.S. really is lacking in self confidence in the global climate fight. It really has lost its way.

4. Speaking of the FT, the U.S. emissions per capita in 2030 will remain higher than in other countries, partly because the country’s per person emissions right now are much higher than nearly everywhere else on earth (whew, the FT didn’t include my home country Australia in its charts).

The U.S. has only 4 percent of the world’s population, yet has caused almost a quarter of the world’s global-warming crisis.

See these chart snips (and see the FT link below).

5. Another reason why the U.S. can afford to be more ambitious is it already knows emission cuts can be achieved for a price that’s probably much cheaper than $160 a ton internationally (see number 1 reason). Clever Americans need to get overseas during the next few year and help developing nations recover from the pandemic, financing and building green projects.

The U.S. NDC even says almost as much in its own NDC (see link in the first chart above):

“The United States intends to apply a net-net accounting approach in accounting for the NDC. Net emissions in the target year will be compared against net emissions in the base year to calculate the percentage emissions reductions achieved. Consistent with Articles
4 and 6 of the Paris Agreement and any applicable guidance, in tracking progress towards and accounting for the NDC, the United States intends to make corresponding adjustments for any internationally transferred mitigation outcomes that the United States Government authorizes for use towards NDCs, and for mitigation outcomes that the United States authorizes for other international mitigation purposes.”

Note the U.S. NDC says “any internationally transferred mitigation outcomes that the United States Government authorizes.”

Note also that corresponding adjustments are made when countries transfer “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” under Paris. That is, if the U.S. finances a clever green hydrogen project in Africa and wants to use the carbon credits created to meet the American NDC in 2030, that’s possible under Paris.

The climate crisis is a global problem and collaboration is essential to meet the targets and provide climate justice. The U.S. NDC mentions the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change twice. It mentions the “United States” 76 times.

Last week, I asked the U.S. State Department what role should the UN have in the global climate solution? I will report its answer when/if I get one. It did refer me to the fact sheet below.

Meanwhile, non-weak NDCs are becoming critically important.

An analysis of updated Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris climate deal published February by the UN Climate secretariat showed the increased ambition being offered by countries was tiny, cutting emissions by less than an extra 1% in 2030 vs 2010.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by contrast, has indicated that emission reduction ranges to meet the 1.5°C temperature goal should be around -45% in 2030 compared to 2010.

Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, earlier this week called for nations to update their NDCs by the end of next month for a new synthesis report covering how ambitious the NDCs are — that needs to be published two months before climate talks in November in Glasgow, she said.

We can live in hope. But, but the sad truth is countries are not really incentivized to agree Paris rules and massively tighten their NDCs, because that is creating a bunch of politically difficult work for themselves …and if they don’t do it well … they might get voted out of office.

The solution is to do it well. My hope is that the U.S. NDC is an “ambit claim” made at the beginning of a five-month negotiation, where a party asks for something unreasonable in the expectation that the eventual landing ground set at the Glasgow climate talks in November will be much better for the climate — ie a 10-year carbon budget, perhaps?

Espinosa, speaking ahead of the intersessional climate talks being held the next three weeks virtually to prepare for Glasgow, made the point that this month’s dialogue was “credibility test.” Envoys need to arrive in Glasgow with decisions ready at hand, she said.

(Updates Wednesday with Espinosa, inadequate NDCs)


LINK 1: FT story: https://www.ft.com/content/e025643a-c90f-4b07-ad08-01b81af5a4f0

LINK 2: Biden-Harris 2030 fact sheet: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/04/22/fact-sheet-president-biden-sets-2030-greenhouse-gas-pollution-reduction-target-aimed-at-creating-good-paying-union-jobs-and-securing-u-s-leadership-on-clean-energy-technologies/

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