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The U.S. Makes A Big Climate Change Commitment, But Is It Enough?

Countries around the world are starting to announce their long-term plans to cut carbon, in the lead-up to major emissions negotiations. Will it add up?

The U.S. Makes A Big Climate Change Commitment, But Is It Enough?
[Illustration: tashechka via Shutterstock]

This is a big year for international climate-change negotiations. In December, all 192 U.N. member countries are due to meet in Paris to agree on carbon emission reduction targets post-2020. The event will go a long way to showing whether the world is serious about global warming.

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To its credit, the U.S. has already announced its position. Today, the White House officially committed us to cutting emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. That follows a previous pledge to cut 17% by 2020.

How does the administration intend to follow through? In its submission to the U.N.–known as an “intended nationally determined contribution”–it lays out polices like improving vehicle, building, and appliance efficiency standards, regulations to curb pollution from power plants, and measures to cut methane emissions from energy production.


With the falling cost of renewables, the White House says we “have the tools we need to tackle climate change head-on,” though getting there is unlikely to be easy. Just reaching the 2020 target will be hard enough, especially if Congress isn’t offering any help. For example, the methane plan calls for a reduction of 40%–45% below 2012 levels by 2025–which is a lot, if you think about the thousands of fracking sites across the country and what it will take to bring all those into line.

The submission says:

Achieving the 2025 target will require a further emission reduction of 9–11% beyond our 2020 target compared to the 2005 baseline and a substantial acceleration of the 2005–2020 annual pace of reduction, to 2.3–2.8 percent per year, or an approximate doubling.

The 28 countries of the European Union–representing 13% of global emissions–have already submitted their plan, and last week Mexico made a pledge to peak its emissions in 2026. China, representing 27% of emissions, has said it will peak its carbon by 2030, though it hasn’t sent its plan to the U.N. yet. Other important players, like India, are waiting until the summer and have said less about their intentions.

The bigger question, of course, is whether these efforts will actually be sufficient to curb climate change. Critics argue governments are prone to make big-sounding statements without considering the ultimate global carbon budget. To stay within a temperature rise of 2 degrees C, scientists generally agree we’ll need bigger reductions than are on the table today.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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