The U.S. now aims to cut annual greenhouse gas emissions in half—between 50% and 52% lower than 2005 levels—by the end of the decade. The Biden administration announced the goal today as its new commitment under the Paris climate agreement, nearly doubling the previous commitment made under Obama.
The goal (called an “NDC,” or nationally determined contribution, in Paris Agreement jargon) is in line with what climate scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts from climate change. And multiple studies have also found that it’s feasible, though it will require a massive push to roll out renewable energy, electric cars, and other technology much faster than is happening today.
“A good target should do two things at the same time—it should be challenging and ambitious and in-line with the science, something that sets us up as a country to get our emissions in a place where we can reasonably say we’re keeping the global path to success open to keep warming under 1.5 [degrees Celsius],” says Nathan Hultman, who helped develop the Paris Agreement as a White House official under Obama, and who now runs the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland. “And then the other thing that target should do, of course, is be achievable. There should be a plausible pathway to success.”
In one analysis, Hultman and other researchers found that a combination of new policies and federal standards could cut emissions 51% by 2030. It would involve a quick shift to zero-emissions electricity generation, incentives and standards for cleaner cars, and other changes like making buildings more efficient and pouring investment into reforestation and better land management. Other studies have looked at slightly different paths to get to roughly the same goal.
The new goal is a much bigger cut than the Obama administration’s target of a 26% to 28% reduction in emissions by 2025. That’s partly by design—countries set voluntary goals under the Paris agreement and then are expected to ramp up ambition over time. But the reality of what’s possible has also changed, as the cost of everything from solar panels and batteries to LED lights has quickly fallen at the same time that the technologies have improved. “We’re in a much different market position now than we were even five or six years ago, and frankly, a place that we didn’t even anticipate,” Hultman says.
Cities, states, and companies also moved aggressively on climate change even as the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement and worked to roll back dozens of environmental policies. More than 200 American companies have science-based targets to cut emissions. (Hundreds also pushed the administration to set the new target.) More than 170 U.S. cities are moving to 100% renewable energy. The progress that’s already happening will help make it possible for the country as a whole to meet the 2030 goal.
Of course, just setting the goal doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Globally, few countries are on track for their original Paris Agreement targets. It still isn’t clear what Congress will do with the American Jobs Plan, Biden’s $2.2 trillion package to rebuild the power grid, incentivize electric vehicles, and otherwise move toward a lower-emissions future. “Congress is absolutely essential for this NDC to become reality,” says Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who focuses on energy, climate, and environmental politics. The 50% goal is grounded in what can happen politically, Hultman says.
Some environmental advocates argue that we should be going faster. The nonprofit Friends of the Earth, for example, has been calling for a 70% reduction in U.S. emissions by 2030, along with financing to help enable another 125% reduction in developing countries. In a major climate report in 2018, scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that the whole world would have to cut emissions by around 45% by 2030 in order to have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change, from more severe flooding to the collapse of coral reefs.
“If the U.S. contributes a 50% cut, you have to ask yourself, is that enough?” says Stokes. “Or should the U.S. be doing more? Some people say that the developed world, which is responsible for the vast majority of historic emissions, has the responsibility to be doing more. But 50% is a lot, and it’s going to be hard to do. So there’s a question about realism here. These are goals to do something that are actually realistic.”
If the American Jobs Plan succeeds, as the name implies, it can also help the country recover from the pandemic by creating jobs and rebuilding communities that have been hardest hit economically—including those that once relied on industries like coal.
“I think what you’ve seen from the president is a commitment that’s going to lead us to really powerfully reenter the international agreement, and recognize that we are going to be on track to address the challenge of climate,” Gina McCarthy, White House domestic climate adviser, said on a recent press call organized by the nonprofit World Resources Institute. “But we’re going to do it in a way that’s very deliberate, that is really looking at how we grow good jobs, ensure that they are union accessible, and make sure that we leave no community and no worker behind.”