On April 22nd, President Biden will convene leaders to a virtual climate summit to reaffirm US leadership and motivate countries to cut emissions much more aggressively.
Of course, after a long leadership vacuum, the United States is only just beginning to commit to climate protection again. During his presidency, Donald Trump tore down dozen of environmental regulations and withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, undermining global progress in reducing emissions.
To reassure the world that the US is taking the climate threat seriously, Biden plans to announce a new climate target for 2030 under the Paris Agreement ahead of the summit.
The government is considering a target to cut emissions by 48 to 53 percent by 2030 compared to 2005, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday. This is in line with suggestions from many green groups who have achieved a reduction target of around 50 percent. While this goal will require significant changes to be achieved in less than a decade, many recent studies show it is within reach.
But a new report made by a group of environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth and Youth Sunrise Movement approaches the question from a different angle. Rather than determining what is feasible for the US, they first ask: What responsibility should the US have in reducing global emissions in order to keep the planet from warming to dangerous levels?
The result is a much bolder vision for reducing US emissions by 2030: 195 percent.
That's right – they suggest that the US's real responsibility is not just to eliminate all of its emissions by 2030 (which would be 100 percent), but to go further.
The stakeholders recognize that it is not feasible for the US to pull this off within its own borders. Instead, they propose that the country cut its domestic carbon footprint by 70 percent and contribute the remaining 125 percent by funding developing countries' emissions reductions.
the authors argue that if the US achieved these goals it would be doing its "fair share" in fighting climate change as the world's largest historical emitter and richest nation.
Still, the number stimulates the imagination when compared to other proposals that are closer to political reality. But that's the point. "If we always shape our understanding in terms of what we can envision from this current Senate, it is not a discussion of what is actually needed," said Sivan Kartha, a US-based senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and Co-author of the report.
Biden's new goal will inevitably be politically constrained. However, as we approach a future climate that will have serious repercussions on those least responsible for the problem, it is worth pausing to consider this issue of fairness further.
A broad vision of the responsibility of the US climate – and how much it could cost
To get an idea of what the US owes the rest of the world in terms of climate change, a broader coalition of civil society groups met within the US climate protection network to falsify the 195 percent proposal last summer.
The process, they argued, should begin with a journey through time. As the following animation shows, the USA is by far the largest historical emitter.
Animation: The countries with the highest cumulative CO2 emissions since 1750
Ranking from the beginning of 2019:
1) US – 397GtCO2
2) CN – 214 Gt
3) for the USSR – 180
4) DE – 90
5) UK – 77
6) JP – 58
7) IN – 51
8) FR – 37
9) CA – 32
10) PL – 27 pic.twitter.com/cKRNKO4O0b
– Carbon Brief (@CarbonBrief) April 23, 2019
The groups chose the emissions since 1950 when the world economy and emissions really took off. The cumulative number of emissions is relevant because once carbon dioxide molecules enter the atmosphere, they linger for hundreds of years – past emissions still shape the course of global warming.
The other important factor in calculating the fairness of the coalition is a nation's ability to address the problem. They use a nation's income as an approximation of capacity, but exclude the income of those below a certain poverty line.
Between these two factors, the coalition concluded that the US is responsible for 39 percent of global efforts to combat climate change. (You can play around with the Climate Equity calculator to see the assumptions behind the bottom line.)
To take on this share of the burden, the US would have to cut emissions by 195 percent or 14 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030 compared to 2005 to stay in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is required to keep global warming below 1, Keeping 5 degrees Celsius.
However, as noted above, the coalition is proposing that the US only cut its own emissions by 70 percent, or domestically by about 4 gigatons.
“The 70 percent is not our fair share, it's what we can do if we really align our minds and muscles with the US, and the rest of that fair share (…) would have to be done by cooperation with other countries – poorer countries, ”explained Kartha.
USA Fair Shares NDC Report
Regarding the US responsibility to help other countries, the new report also suggested a corresponding financial commitment. Using a low estimate of the cost of reducing one tonne of carbon, the authors calculate that it would cost $ 570 billion by 2030 to help other countries reduce emissions enough to meet their 195 percent target.
But also to start compensating countries for the effects of climate change that are already on the move from current warming, They argue that the US should pass similar amounts on to adjustment and "loss and damage".
While adjusting funds would help countries reduce the suffering caused by warmer climates in the short term, “loss and damage” funding would serve as a form of redress to compensate countries for unrecoverable damage such as the Rise of the sea level. The sum, then by 2030 it would be somewhere on the order of $ 1.6 trillion.
These are only initial estimates as these losses are so difficult to calculate. "The questions on the financial side are actually much – more painful – more complex," said Kartha.
To give perspective, Biden recently suggested spending around $ 1 trillion on clean energy transition in the US over the next eight years, and progressives have called for that amount to be spent annually.
Still, $ 1.6 trillion is way beyond anything the US has ever seen open to other countries taken into consideration. So far we've only given $ 1 billion total in funding the Green Climate Fund, the United Nations mechanism to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change because Trump refused to provide further assistance.
These numbers may be very ambitious – but the US should move closer to them
The coalition is not all alone when it comes to reaching a much more ambitious target for 2030. The think tanks Climate Analytics and the NewClimate Institute also suggested a similar fair share: 75 percent for domestic cuts, with continued support overseas.
However, the question arises: how technically feasible would it be to achieve such a goal?
The new report does not reference any particular study that indicated the choice of a 70 percent domestic target. A target of 71 percent was named as a presidential candidate in Senator Bernie Sanders' climate protection plan. Most studies have focused on lower goals, despite the fact that engineer-inventor Saul Griffith modeled a way to cut 70 to 80 percent by 2035.
Dan Lashof, US director of the World Resources Institute, who recommended a 50 percent target, said, “Scientifically, there are good reasons to go much further. Personally, I don't see any alignment of political or economic forces to bring us into the range of 60 to 70 percent compared to 2005 by 2030. I would like to be wrong, but that's my judgment. "
Achieving only 50 percent cuts will require significant economic efforts, including phasing out All US coal-fired power plants by 2030. And the Trump years put the US at a disadvantage compared to other developed countries like the UK and the EU, where stable political commitment to climate action has allowed governments to seek cuts of 68 and 55 percent, respectively.
"There is no question that the four years under the Trump administration have put the US behind the eight ball and made the job more difficult," said Lashof.
Karen Orenstein, the climate and energy director for nonprofit friends of the environment, Friends of the Earth, who co-authored the new report, admitted that it is politically unlikely to gain any prominence. "I don't expect many members of Congress to take these numbers, but I also think you will see more new and existing progressive members talking about a fundamental change in how we approach these things," she said.
While Biden himself is unlikely to adopt the proposal, Orenstein argued that it reflects his approach to tackling racial and social injustices through domestic climate action, including allocating 40 percent of the benefits of climate investments to disadvantaged communities. To be a global climate leader, Biden should expand that focus to overseas stocks as well. "Biden has done a good job so far speaking about centering environmental justice," she said, "and that can't be confined to US borders."
Clarification, April 9, 2021: The story has been updated to clarify that the estimated cost of reducing one tonne of carbon, which the report's authors used to make a $ 570 billion proposal to fund US climate protection for other countries, are a low estimate, but emissions are currently being eliminated at a lower cost.