Traffic and smog in Denver, Colo. Credit: Jared Tarbell, CC BY 2.0

The White House on 31 March formalized its goal to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26%–28% below 2005 levels by 2025, stating it would make “best efforts” to achieve a 28% reduction.

The target is included in a 31 March document submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in advance of a climate summit in Paris, France, from 30 November to 11 December. The document, known as the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), formalizes the U.S. target set last November in a joint announcement with China.

More than 30 countries have submitted their climate action plans, including Russia, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland, and members of the European Union.

“According to UNFCCC, two-thirds of industrialized countries covering 65 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the industrialized part of the world have now set out their ambition for the new [Paris climate change] agreement, which comes into effect in 2020,” said UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres. “Many of these contributions also speak to longer-term aims representative of progressively increasing ambition over time.” Figueres added that many more nations are expected to file their plans over the coming months.

The U.S. Emissions Target

Coal-fired power plants in Latan, Mo. Credit: Thiophene_Guy, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“The U.S. target will roughly double the pace of carbon pollution reduction in the United States from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005–2020 period to 2.3–2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025,” according to the White House. “This ambitious target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the pathway to achieve deep economy-wide reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050.”

The White House stated in a note accompanying the UNFCCC submission that “substantial global emission reductions are needed to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, and the 2025 target is consistent with a path to deep decarbonization.”

The administration pointed to a list of laws and existing regulations that are relevant for implementing the target emission reductions. These include vehicle fuel economy standards and measures to address building sector emissions. The administration also cited as relevant several proposed regulations, including energy efficiency standards; standards for heavy-duty engines and vehicles; and the Clean Power Plan guidelines proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cut carbon pollution from power plants, which could be finalized by the summer.

An Ambitious and Achievable Goal

During a 31 March briefing, administration spokespeople noted the importance of the emission targets, underscored that combating climate change can go hand in hand with having a flourishing economy, and stressed the legal grounds to work to achieve the targets.

The UNFCCC submission “is ambitious and achievable within existing legal authority,” White House senior adviser Brian Deese said. “Over the last 8 years, we in the United States have already cut carbon pollution more than any other country. By formalizing this goal, we are committing to build on that progress and to pick up the pace.”

“We can achieve this goal using laws that are already on the books,” a White House adviser said.

“We can achieve this goal using laws that are already on the books,” Deese said. He added that the structure of the INDC “is grounded in an assessment of the potential to reduce emissions through our obligation under existing laws. Those are laws already passed by Congress and therefore no new legislation is necessary to realize the [emission] reductions we propose.”

He said the Clean Power Plan “is an important component” of the administration’s overall climate strategy. “We feel quite confident that the approach that EPA has laid out is not only consistent with longstanding legal authority under the [federal] Clean Air Act, but is also designed to provide states maximum flexibility to achieve [emission] targets.”

Opposition to the Administration’s Plan

Several prominent Republican senators castigated the White House emission targets. The administration’s pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions up to 28% “will not see the light of day with the 114th Congress,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “As the Obama administration continues to pursue a radical agenda on global warming, it’s clear Americans are beginning to question if the cost of billions of dollars to our economy and tens of thousands of lost job opportunities is really worth it for potentially no gain.”

The administration’s pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions “will not see the light of day with the 114th Congress,” one senator said.

“When a treaty comes before the Senate,” Inhofe continued, “I fully expect for a majority of my colleagues to stand with the rest of Americans who want affordable energy and more economic opportunity, neither of which will be obtainable with the president’s current climate deal.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposes EPA’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants, a key White House climate item. “Even if the job-killing and likely illegal Clean Power Plan were fully implemented, the United States could not meet the targets laid out in this proposed new plan,” he stated. “Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal.”

Support from Environmental Groups

Jennifer Morgan, global director for the World Resources Institute’s Climate Change Program, stated that the U.S. proposal is “a serious and achievable commitment.” Morgan said that “additional opportunities for deeper reductions will be increasingly available as technology trends make clean power and other low-carbon solutions more affordable. The United States’ acknowledgement of the need for ‘deep decarbonization’ sends a positive signal.”

“To win the fight against climate change, the world first needs to turn the corner on global greenhouse gas emissions, so that they stop rising and start falling,” said Nathaniel Keohane, the Environmental Defense Fund’s vice president for international climate. “Ultimately, the science is clear that the U.S. and other major emitters will need to do more to reduce emissions. The test for Paris is whether the emission reductions commitments that countries make are enough to ensure that the world makes that turn. The U.S. target, along with the pledges made by the EU, China, and others, means that for the first time we can see that turn happening.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), White House submits greenhouse gas emission targets, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO027421. Published on 1 April 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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