"America is back," US President Joe Biden told the international community last week during the Zoom version of the Munich Security Conference, the annual confab of the world's foreign policy elite. As if to underscore the promise, the United States officially acceded to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change that same day. But declaring being back doesn't make it that way. To deliver on Biden's promise, Washington must commit itself internationally to an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions – and to keep that promise, the US Congress must act. At a moment when bipartisan cooperation on climate change seems like a pipe dream, the new administration's credibility depends on it.
While many world leaders celebrated Biden's return to the Paris Process, their expectations of what it has to deliver are high, especially after four years of climate obstacle under former President Donald Trump. The test will take place in two months, when the United States announces its emissions target for 2030, known in climate diplomacy as the “Nationally Determined Contribution” (NDC) – part of preparations for the next United Nations climate change meeting in November. Under the Paris Agreement, each country agreed to set an NDC every five years. This framework is intended to allow countries to gradually increase their ambitions and create transparency so that nations can be sure that others will follow suit, rather than releasing their efforts.
The NDC has to be ambitious but credible. In the last round of 2015, then-President Barack Obama barely threaded the needle and announced a target of reducing emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This was on the low end of a course consistent with long term emissions targets and targets, on the high end of what was achievable with the federal agencies then in existence. The United States is not on track today to achieve that goal.
In order to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the Biden government must announce a new NDC that includes an emissions target for 2030. To be seen as ambitious by the international community, that target must be 50 percent below or close to 2005 levels – as Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the Paris Agreement, made clear when she brought Washington back into the process last week. "Now you have to have the conversation," she said.
The goal of reducing emissions by 45 to 50 percent by 2030 is important for two reasons. First, Biden has set a target of net zero emissions by 2050, and the straight line path from 2020 emissions to net zero in 2050 is precisely in that area in 2030. Second, it follows the 2018 UN report, in which has been shown the need for emissions for many nations have increased their own ambitions to avoid the serious consequences of climate change. In particular, the European Union and the United Kingdom recently set targets for 2030 that promise a reduction of around 40 percent below the 2019 level. For the United States, a similar decline between 2019 and 2030 equates to a target between 45 and 50 percent below 2005 levels.
The problem for the Biden administration is that an ambitious number is not enough. The goal must also be believable, which means that there is a realistic political framework to achieve it. To do this, Democrats and Republicans must work together to tackle climate change.
There are currently three possible policy levers for the United States to reduce emissions by 2030. First, current law gives the managing authority the power to take many important actions, such as: For example, regulating vehicles and power plants, using public procurement to promote clean energy, and placing climate change at the heart of foreign policy, international finance and trade. In his first week in office, Biden issued two major implementing regulations that took a whole-of-government approach to tackling climate change and aimed to deploy virtually every tool in the administration's existing domestic and foreign policy toolkit.
Second, Biden has pledged to continue his current call for $ 1.9 trillion in pandemic aid with an even larger infrastructure investment package that would include significant spending on clean energy priorities like building a low-carbon power grid. The gridlock crash in Texas during last week's deep freeze could add further impetus to grid infrastructure investments. However, there is still disagreement among Democrats as to how much and what to spend and whether an infrastructure package should be passed on purely party-political lines through a process known as budget balancing or whether cross-party support should be built.
Third, many US states continue to pursue ambitious climate protection measures such as standards for clean electricity and buildings, emissions from vehicles and carbon pricing programs. In the US federal system, state and local governments have tremendous authority over emission sources such as the electricity system, buildings, urban infrastructure, traffic and mass transit, which is why local politics can make a significant contribution to the achievement of US emissions targets.
The problem is that Congress spending on infrastructure, executive power, and government action can go a long way, but they're not enough to achieve 50 percent emissions reductions by 2030. To achieve this magnitude, Congress would need to propose more comprehensive legislation on climate change. And it can be done: for example, a recent study by Columbia University and the Rhodium Group showed that combining a handful of the guidelines already in place in Europe, including a carbon price and targeted sectoral standards, could bring the US to its knees around 45 percent reductions by 2030. Other studies have shown similar paths with different policy mixes.
Although the Democrats control both houses of Congress – in the case of the Senate with the lowest majority – it will be difficult to pass meaningful climate legislation without the support of Republicans, especially since Democratic senators like Joe Manchin have declared their opposition to eliminating the filibuster- Rule that requires a majority for most laws. Biden has to enter into deals with centrists in Congress who have not previously supported strict emission limits. Otherwise, he will be faced with a climate policy toolbox that may not match the scale of the challenge.
Some activists argue that Democrats could set a national standard to decarbonize electricity without Republicans by applying budget balancing, but it's unclear whether such an approach would pass parliamentary muster – or get the support of all Senate Democrats, even if it did would.
In addition, electricity is only responsible for about 25 percent of US emissions, so further action would be required to drive the reduction. Coverage of the entire energy system could be achieved with a gradually rising carbon price in the range of the price proposed on Capitol Hill – around $ 50 per tonne of carbon dioxide – which is likely to result in emissions reductions of 45 to 50 percent not only by 2030 when combined with the outlined executive and state policies, but also in line with achieving net zero emissions by 2050. A growing number of moderate Republicans, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney, as well as business stakeholders such as the US Chamber of Commerce, recently signaled support for a carbon tax.
The Biden government needs to pick the right combination of ambition and realism in setting its emissions target for 2030 in April. This decision is being scrutinized from Beijing to Brussels and may well determine what other nations do. Biden's decision is the fundamental tension in US climate policy today: On the one hand, extensive new legislation like a national carbon tax and strict sectoral standards are required to achieve ambitious carbon reductions and ensure that the policy is durable enough not to roll back to be done every few years when political control changes in Washington. And meaningful new legislation requires working with Republicans in Congress to find areas of bipartisan settlement. On the other hand, climate change results from cumulative emissions. If we are to avoid serious climate impacts, there is not enough time to find incremental solutions while we wait for Republicans to get to climate change.
When it comes to climate change, America might actually be back. To make sense of this promise, both the White House and Congress must do their part. As naive as it may seem in today's dysfunctional US political environment, real climate progress requires not only executive and state action, but also Democratic-Republican collaboration in Congress. With decades of experience building a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill, there may be no better president than Biden doing the impossible on this front. To address the urgency of the climate crisis, the Biden government must be both ambitious and credible: first, it must commit to cutting emissions by around 50 percent by 2030, and then reach down the aisle to get the job done .