Getting the United States to Net-Zero Emissions

At the COP22 Climate Conference, the United States presented details on the new Mid Century Strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This builds on the commitment from 2009 to reduce emissions by at least 80 percent. The US was not alone in presenting a long term vision, as Canada and Mexico both released their own mid-century strategies. Many nations announced such plans before the Paris climate conference and many more are expected to announce theirs before the end of this year. With many cities and states already ahead of the curve when it comes to reducing emissions in the United States, there is clear momentum for even deeper reductions than our current climate commitments suggest.

The Mid Century Strategy is a technical report that lists priorities for action for the decades ahead—transforming to a low carbon economy, sequestering carbon and reducing non-CO2 emissions. Several different scenarios were presented to help the United States reach a balance of emissions and carbon sinks by 2060. The three main elements of the Strategy are transforming to a low carbon energy system, sequestering carbon, and reducing non-carbon emissions such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons. While this strategy does not commit the next Administration to action or specific policies for the near term, it provides concrete evidence of pathways for reducing US emissions while growing the economy. We have already seen in the last few years that continued GDP growth can be decoupled from emissions, as the US has seen total emissions decline while the economy has continued to grow.

What’s needed in the coming decades is leadership by policymakers at all levels of government—the kind that respects how businesses can benefit from a low carbon economy and the rapid deployment of renewable energy sources. We have seen rapid deployment of renewables in the past few years, which in turn lowers their cost—to the point that new renewables can be operated more cheaply than a new coal plant. The Mid Century Strategy can help policymakers, businesses and investors at all levels plan over the long term for the low-carbon energy economy.

Mexico and Canada are already acting to make their long term goals a reality. Canada is ramping up to a major carbon tax and investing in green infrastructure such as transmission, smart grids and storage. Mexico will deploy several gigawatts of renewable energy to fulfill its Energy Transition Law and the goals in the joint agreement with the United States and Canada at the last “Three Amigos” summit. Mexico’s goal as a developing country is to reduce emissions 50 percent by 2050. It already has a national climate change law which makes this goal mandatory—a sign of high ambition that we have yet to see from its North American neighbors. Mexico is developing its carbon market and plans to link it with that of California, Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere.

For a time, it was expected that the “three amigos” (Canada, Mexico, United States) would be developing mid-century strategies that are in line and in sync with one another. It is still unclear if President-elect Trump has an understanding of the scope of the climate challenge and action needed. If he finds out, then one hopes he will understand the imperative to take action and start decarbonizing the economy—limiting the future risks to our health, to our communities, and to the economy.