Obama’s Climate Pledge: Is It Enough?

Bill Scher

The United States made one of the first pledges to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Other countries will follow suit over the next few months, setting the stage for an international climate agreement in December, in which nations would pursue different goals and strategies. But America pledged early in hopes of shedding our reputation as an obstacle to an agreement and setting a strong example for others to follow.

Environmental groups largely praised the Obama administration’s target of at least a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 from our near-peak level in 2005. (We’ve already cut emissions by 8.5 percent since then.) The cuts really kick in after 2020, the White House projects the reductions would continue until clearing 80 percent by 2050. But is it enough to avert a climate crisis? And if not, is there more we could do?

These are difficult questions to answer with precision because estimates are just that, and our overall success is dependent on the performance of other nations.

But we do know that the U.N.’s climate panel estimated that global emissions needed to drop by 39 percent by 2030 from the 2010 level in order to avoid a devastating two-degree average global temperature increase. (Note that institutions tend to use near-peak levels for their baselines. The global 2010 level is higher than the 2005 level, while the opposite is true for the U.S.)

President Obama’s pledge would result in a 34 percent cut from America’s 2005 level by 2030, which in one sense amounts to doing our share, if perhaps a little short of what the U.N. is calling for. But when you take into account the fact countries like China are expecting to only slow their growth of emissions in the next 15 years, not cut them, simply doing our share isn’t enough.

A recent analysis from the environmental policy firm Climate Advisers estimated that even if we received “a strong set of pledges [from other nations] on top of the current commitments made by the United States, China, and the European Union,” we would only realize “48-50 percent of the emission reductions needed for a likely chance of limiting warming to 2°C.”

How to close the gap? While the international pledges only deal with domestic commitments, Climate Advisers is urging developed nations to do more to support emissions cuts outside of their borders – in other words, give other countries money to help them reduce their emissions, a politically challenging proposition.

Of course, it certainly can’t hurt if America does more on its own. President Obama’s pledge is based on programs already in the works – nothing that requires approval from the Republican Congress.

The heart of the Obama climate initiative is the EPA’s “Clean Power Plan” to cap carbon emissions from power plants. Michael Grunwald, writing for Time last year, actually was “underwhelmed” by the targets for emissions cuts, arguing that the regulations and market forces already in place have put us on a path to meet the stated goals.

But he also quotes EPA chief Gina McCarthy arguing that the plan’s targets may well undersell what they will eventually accomplish. Grunwald wrote:

The goal, she suggested, was to fashion a plan that could withstand legal and political challenges and to require “what’s doable, reasonable and practical,” not what’s ideal…

…“I don’t want to scare any state away. I don’t want to spend years negotiating about what’s achievable,” McCarthy told me. “I want to get this off the ground … These numbers represent the minimum. I think we’ll end up with a much more aggressive impact.”

Still, there are ways to go beyond what Obama has in the works. A proposal from Robert Pollin of the Political Economy Research Institute argues for $200 billion in annual investments – with $55 billion coming from public funds – to create more than 4 million green jobs.

For America to invest more in America green jobs, or in cutting emissions outside of our borders, requires money, which requires help from Congress, which is help that will not be forthcoming in the next year. That limits what Obama can do before the December talks. What he put on the table this week is as far as he is able to go right now.

But we should be aware that more effort – and a new Congress – will eventually be needed to avert a climate crisis.

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