US Climate Commitment Should Spur Other Countries to Act

The proposed U.S. commitment to tackling climate change in support of a new international climate agreement is a serious and achievable plan that demonstrates the United States is ready to take significant action. Coming today, eight months before the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Paris this December, known as COP 21, the U.S. submission adds momentum toglobal climate negotiations and should help spur other countries to act.

The United States joins Switzerland, the European Union, Norway, Mexico and Russia, which have already submitted their proposed commitments — formally called intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs — to form a core part of the new climate agreement.

As the world’s second largest emitter, the United States can use its comprehensive proposal to help inspire greater climate action internationally. The U.S. commitment sends an important signal to the world by making clear the need for a path to deep cuts in climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

What’s the Basic U.S. Climate Action Proposal?

The historic announcement by the United States and China last November formed the basis for the top-line target in the U.S. proposal: a pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The proposal also indicates that this target is consistent with a trajectory to economy-wide reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050.

This reduction target is challenging but achievable. Between 2020 and 2025, the United States will double the rate of emissions reductions, compared to what is currently scheduled between now and 2020. To achieve it all the tools at the administration’s disposal must be put to use. These include actions to cut emissions from vehiclespower plants and oil and natural gas production facilities, along with policies to increase energy efficiency and reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, among others.

What Else Did the U.S. Submission Include?

The United States committed to an overall greenhouse gas emissions outcome, not to a specific pathway for achieving it. But the proposal does provide important clarity about the laws and regulations the administration will use to reach the target, including using its authority under the Clean Air Act and the Energy Policy Act. Including this information enhances the transparency of the proposed commitment and sends important signals to the international community that the U.S. target is both achievable and durable.

Many of these policies, which underpin the proposed 2025 target, are already being implemented through regulatory processes based on existing laws, an approach that helps to ensure they will last over the coming decade and beyond. While the proposal doesn’t list the full suite of specific sectors where action will be needed, the most important sectors include:

  • Power plants
  • Residential and commercial efficiency
  • Passenger vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks
  • Methane from natural gas systems and landfills
  • Hydrofluorocarbons

These actions set a good foundation that will help drive deep cuts in future emissions. In order to achieve its 2025 emissions-reduction target, the United States will also need to continue to develop regulations under the broad laws it identified in its proposal, including standards for sources of emissions not yet addressed (like industry and aircraft).

The U.S. submission provides critical elements of transparency, including information on how it will account for emissions and removals from the land use and forestry sector, specifying that the United States does not intend to use market mechanisms like offsets to achieve its target.

The U.S. discussion concerning the fairness and ambition of its contribution is limited in scope. Information about these issues is essential to determining how the actions by the United States compare to other countries and how far they go toward reaching the target level of emissions reductions. In addressing fairness and ambition, the submission notes the doubling of the U.S. emissions-reduction rate and the goal of an 80 percent or more reduction by 2050. However, the proposed commitment does not use key indicators of fairness, as other countries’ submissions have done, such as emissions per capita, economic capacity or mitigation potential. Presenting its contribution without this context makes it difficult to determine whether the United States is realizing its mitigation potential to the greatest extent possible considering its national circumstances.

What’s Next?

The U.S. proposal to reduce emissions by as much as 28 percent represents a significant commitment through 2025. But the country will need to continue to accelerate its efforts over time to help the world get on track to limit global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) and reach the goal of deep decarbonization by mid-century.

The good news is that there is much the United States could do to benefit both the climate and the economy by saving businesses and consumers money and improving public health. As we move toward the Paris climate summit, all countries — along with cities, businesses and other actors — will need to cooperate to seize these opportunities.

American voters support ambitious climate leadership and recent polls show that U.S. voters would overwhelmingly support President Obama in signing an international agreement that would commit all countries to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions. The U.S. proposal is an essential step on that path, one that can help spur the necessary level of global action.

This article was originally published on the World Resources Institute and was republished with permission.

Lead image: Capitol. Credit: Shutterstock.

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David Waskow is the Director of WRI’s International Climate Initiative. The Initiative is focused on international cooperation that catalyzes and supports action on climate change at the national level in developed and developing countries. The initiative includes work on the elements of a 2015 international climate agreement and the Climate Justice Dialogue, addressing issues of climate impacts and equity. David has worked for many years at the intersection of environmental and development issues. Prior to WRI, David directed climate change policy at the development organization Oxfam America, where much of his work focused on the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities. While at Oxfam, he addressed a wide range of climate finance issues, including increasing financial resources, the development of effective, responsive finance institutions, and the participation of local communities in directing the use of finance on the ground. At Oxfam, he also directed policy work on climate adaptation and resilience strategies, including food security and agriculture issues and the role of the private sector in climate resilience. Prior to joining Oxfam, Waskow served as the international program director for Friends of the Earth, where his role included overseeing the organization's work on the environmental dimensions of trade policy and international financial institutions. In addition to his international experience, he has worked on domestic issues ranging from low-income housing to garment industry labor conditions. He has testified before Congress on responses to climate change and on trade issues, and he is frequently a go-to source on climate change financing for the media, from The Washington Post to The New York Times. He has graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University; his undergraduate degree is from Brown University.

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