US Should Pledge to Cut Heat-trapping Emissions At Least 50 Percent Below 2005 Levels by 2030

March 10, 2021
Johnson Banks/COP26
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

President Biden has brought the US back into the Paris Agreement and has announced a Leaders’ Climate Summit, now set for April 22—Earth Day. The administration has said it will develop and submit its nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement ahead of the summit. An appropriately ambitious US NDC should include a commitment to cut its heat-trapping emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Such a target is both feasible and commensurate with the country’s responsibility to contribute to global efforts to limit climate change.

What is an NDC and why are this year’s commitments so important?

The Paris Agreement is built on a set of voluntary commitments that individual nations must make—aka nationally determined contributions (NDCs)—to keep the world on track collectively to meet the goals of the agreement: to keep global average temperature increase to well below 2˚C and as close to 1.5˚C as possible. In 2015, it was understood that the initial commitments countries had made were highly inadequate and much more ambition would be needed. Therefore, the agreement includes a “ratchet mechanism,” creating a regular opportunity for nations to submit new NDCs based on updated science and solutions. Nations committed to updating their NDCs at least every five years, although they are free to update them more frequently if they choose.

In 2021, we will see the first 5-year update cycle for NDCs, in time for COP26 in Glasgow this November. The guidelines for NDCs are not terribly prescriptive but generally they must include emissions reduction goals and actions countries are taking to reduce their emissions. Countries are also asked to communicate their strategies for adapting to climate change impacts, alongside their NDCs. Developed countries should also track and regularly communicate their commitments to provide climate finance for developing countries, and there is a growing call for this to be included as part of their NDCs to create greater transparency and accountability.

And in case we needed any reminder of the urgent need for ambitious action, the most recent NDC Synthesis Report from the United Nations, released at the end of February, shows that the nations of the world are far off track in their collective emissions reduction commitments from where we need to be to meet the Paris Agreement goals. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the Synthesis Report’s sobering findings “a red alert for our planet.”

Total GHG emission levels resulting from implementation of the new or updated NDCs are projected to be around 13.67 Gt CO2 eq in 2030 or 0.5 per cent lower than in 2010. According to the IPCC 1.5C report, we need to get to CO2 emissions reductions of 45% below 2005 levels by 2030. (Source: UNFCCC)

With the climate crisis growing ever more urgent, and intersecting with other racial injustice, socioeconomic and health crises, we must secure ambitious NDCs from major emitters like the US this year. Quite simply, 2021 is shaping up to be a make-or-break year.

The US NDC in a global context

I have blogged previously about what lies ahead on the road to COP26, now that the US is back in the Paris Agreement.

The US bears an important responsibility to deliver an ambitious NDC, after four years of being on the sidelines and as a major contributor to annual global heat-trapping emissions (and the largest contributor to cumulative emissions). Given the change in administration—and the welcome difference in posture on the climate crisis—expectations are appropriately high. Of course, a credible, robust NDC is only as good as the domestic policies that back it up.

Several countries have already submitted updated NDCs to the UN registry. For example, the European Union member states have committed to “a binding target of a net domestic reduction of at least 55% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990.” The United Kingdom, host to COP26, has committed to “reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.” Over 100 countries have also committed to long-term net zero goals, with target dates ranging from 2050 for the EU, UK, Japan and the Republic of Korea to 2060 for China.

Unfortunately, China’s latest Five-Year Plan, a draft of which was released last week, does not yet signal a strong commitment to driving down its emissions well before 2030. Special Climate Envoy Kerry must engage with his counterpart from China, Special Envoy Xie Zhenhua, in bilateral and multilateral fora, to push for greater clarity and ambition in China’s near-term climate goals as part of its NDC submission. Diplomatic efforts from the US, UK and the EU—assuming the US also puts forth a robust NDC—could catalyze more action from China as well as climate laggards like Australia, Japan and Brazil. What we can’t afford to do is engage in a race to the bottom, using other countries’ action/inaction as an excuse for abdicating our responsibilities.

Key Elements of a Robust 2021 US NDC

The Biden administration is clearly hard at work developing an updated NDC, as indicated in comments from Special Climate Envoy Kerry and White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy. Here’s what we’ll be watching for:

  1. A bold and achievable economywide emissions reduction commitment of at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

A growing number of techno-economic modeling studies show that deep reductions in heat-trapping emissions are well within our capability. These include studies from Energy Innovation, the University of California Berkeley and GridLab, the University of Maryland, the National Academies of Sciences, and Princeton University. The studies differ in their specifics, but several common themes emerge. To achieve deep cuts in heat-trapping emissions by 2030, on a path to net zero no later than 2050, we will need to:

  • Rapidly ramp up energy efficiency and renewable electricity
  • Phase out coal and curtail the rush to natural gas
  • Advance electrification of energy end-uses economywide (e.g. transportation, buildings, and industry)
  • Invest in low-carbon, climate-resilient infrastructure (e.g. a modernized transmission grid, energy storage, electrification infrastructure, and mass transit)
  • Invest in regenerative agriculture, healthy forests and natural climate solutions, to help safeguard and enhance natural carbon storage in soils, forests, vegetation, and wetlands
  • Make deep cuts in emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and HFCs
  • Invest in clean energy research and development and further research in sustainable food and farm systems that sequester carbon and reduce emissions

Deep changes in market rules and governance are also needed, to both cut emissions more quickly and ensure our transition to a clean economy is just and equitable. Beyond the technology transitions these models are able to capture, we must also look for opportunities to cut emissions through behavioral and societal changes that can directly benefit communities.

  1. An international climate finance commitment of at least $8 billion over the next four years.

The provision of climate finance by developed countries for mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries is a key component of international climate negotiations, including in Article 9 of the Paris Agreement. Despite a long-standing commitment from developed countries that they would raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to meet the needs of developing countries, they have fallen short. In the lead-up to COP26, it is vital that richer nations make up for lost ground by ensuring they hit the $100 billion target and build on that commitment going forward as needs are only increasing.

As part of a fair contribution, the US will need to make up for the $2 billion (out of a total of $3 billion) previously pledged to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) that was left unfulfilled by the previous administration. Additionally, it must commit to providing an additional $6 billion over the next four years, which equates to a doubling of its previous GCF commitment. This would be a bare minimum; other bilateral and multilateral assistance, as well as public-private assistance, should also be ramped up significantly.

This funding is vital for developing nations to also be able to make a rapid, low-carbon transition, as well as invest in much needed climate resilience. According to a recent UN report, “Annual adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at USD 70 billion. This figure is expected to reach USD 140-300 billion in 2030 and USD 280-500 billion in 2050.”

  1. Commitment to a national adaptation strategy that accounts for the grave climate impacts that are already here and that will worsen even if we make steep cuts in global emissions.

Rapidly worsening climate impacts are already unfolding around the world and are disproportionately experienced by those who live in poverty and by communities of color. These climate-caused disasters are exacting a terrible human toll and threatening livelihoods, health, and food and water security in high-risk areas. In the US alone, there were 22 billion-dollar-plus disasters in 2020. As part of our commitment to climate action, the US must develop a proactive and comprehensive national climate adaptation strategy and share it alongside its NDC. Sharing best practices for adaptation policies and committing to transformative actions to build resilience should become a global norm, just as it is with policies that reduce heat-trapping emissions. As one example, here is the UK’s Adaptation Communication to the UNFCCC, submitted alongside its NDC.

A robust US NDC is essential for our economy, our health, our future

Adherence to the goals of the Paris Agreement is deeply connected to people’s daily life concerns today, and in the future. Just this week, new research shows that limiting warming to 1.5˚C is essential to reducing the risks of life-threatening extreme heat and humidity in tropical regions of the world, where 40 percent of the world’s population currently lives. Many low-lying small island nations face existential threats. The US too faces worsening risks from sea level riseextreme heat, wildfires, and rapidly intensifying storms, among other climate impacts.

If the US implements a robust, just and equitable suite of climate policies, we can help cut heat-trapping emissions and help limit the worst climate impacts, at home and around the world. The nation will also:

  • reap significant public health benefits by cutting pollution from fossil fuels
  • create millions of good paying jobs by investing in domestic manufacturing and supply chains for clean energy and promoting high-road labor standards
  • regenerate farmlands, enhance the livelihoods of farmers and support sustainable food systems
  • advance environmental justice by reducing pollution in EJ communities and targeting 40 percent of clean energy and climate resilience investments to historically marginalized communities
  • ensure a fair transition for coal workers and coal-dependent communities.

There is a growing recognition from major companies and economic experts that climate change is a grave threat to our economy and financial system too. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has signaled her commitment to climate action, including creating a high-ranking climate czar position and a climate hub at the Treasury Department. It’s now time for more private sector actors to step up and support an ambitious US 2030 NDC, as called for in an Open Letter to America’s CEOs from UCS and several other NGOs.

We can’t solve the problem of global climate change without acting together from the local to the international level. Major emitting nations, in particular, must act together to cut emissions sharply and quickly, in line with what the science shows is required. A crucial ingredient for unlocking global climate ambition in 2021 is a bold US NDC commitment.

We are #AllInFor50. Now it’s time for the Biden administration to step up and deliver.