The U.S. Must Commit to Cutting Emissions by at Least Half

Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres has declared that “2021 is a make or break year” to confront the global climate emergency. After rejoining the Paris Agreement, the Biden administration must now rise to the climate challenge and commit to an ambitious and achievable 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas pollution at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 to set the stage for the forthcoming UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Such a target will put millions of Americans to work every year, avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths, help ward off a climate catastrophe, and help the U.S. mobilize global climate action.

Workers carry solar panel modules during the construction of a Silicon Ranch Corporation facility in Milligan, Tennessee.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

NRDC has published a new analysis—The Biden Administration Must Swiftly Commit to Cutting Climate Pollution at Least 50 Percent by 2030—that demonstrates that for a fraction of U.S. GDP, we can help avert a global climate crisis by building an energy system that creates jobs and drives economic growth, improves public health, supports equity priorities and affords Americans and their communities a safer future. We find that a minimum of 50 percent net GHG reductions target by 2030, below 2005 levels is credible, technologically feasible and affordable—adding to the tally of recent studies reaching the same conclusion.

This target is also strikingly aligned with what improves Americans’ lives and is commensurate with the administration’s Build Back Better priorities. In fact, we find that as much as 53 percent net GHG reductions would cost just 0.4 percent of GDP in 2030 and deliver more than $50 billion in net environmental and public health benefits. It would also create millions of jobs for Americans by 2030—as estimated by recent studies—a much-needed economic boon in a post-pandemic recession. An ambitious U.S. NDC would also reverberate across the world and rally stronger commitments from nations ahead of COP26, helping correct hitherto alarmingly inadequate global climate action.

Some key insights from the report are summarized below.

The U.S. NDC must be at least 50 percent net GHG reductions—a goal that is technologically feasible, credible, and affordable

We worked with Evolved Energy Research to model various deep decarbonization pathways for the U.S. and found that a 53 percent net GHG reduction target by 2030, below 2005 levels is achievable and would produce net-benefits to Americans: it would cost just $100 billion in 2030 and deliver more than $150 billion in public health and environmental benefits, owing to reduced economy-wide carbon emissions and health-damaging air pollution from power plants. The target affordability is largely driven by the remarkable advancements in clean technologies and laudable leadership of subnational actors that snowballed in light of the Trump Administration’s inaction and laid the building blocks for renewed and strong federal ambition.

The 53 percent goal can be achieved relying on familiar decarbonization pillars assuming reasonable and demonstrated levels of ambition. The following measures constitute one pathway out of the many charted by recent studies towards the same goal by 2030 (here, here, and here). This underscores the feasibility of the 50+ percent target.

  • Zero-carbon electricity: the share of zero-carbon electricity nearly doubles compared to today to make up about 80 percent by 2030, and emissions from coal plants are nearly entirely eliminated. The power sector is the linchpin of decarbonization in this decade and the vehicle to cleaning up other sectors as we electrify our vehicles, buildings, and industries (Figure below). This highlights the vital need for bold federal policies to accelerate the sector’s transition to clean energy.
  • Energy efficiency: by reducing energy demand, efficiency remains a highly cost-effective decarbonization tool to reduce the size of investments needed over the next decade and beyond. By 2030, among other measures, aging appliances are replaced with best available commercial and efficient technology and more than 14 million U.S. homes are weatherized.
  • Electrification: remarkable advancements in electric vehicles and high-efficiency heat pumps, together with bold corporate commitments and state policies are the basis for ambitious federal action. By 2030, more than 50 percent of vehicles sold are zero-emissions vehicles—across vehicle segments—and nearly 100 percent of building heating equipment sold is electric
  • We also assume reductions in non-CO2 emissions and investments in preserving and enhancing land carbon sinks via reforestation, afforestation and improved agricultural soil management  

Committing to an ambitious 2030 target is also critical to position the U.S. on a cost-effective path to net-zero by 2050. Otherwise, new fossil-reliant and long-lived infrastructure like pipelines and industrial plants would still be added in bulk in this decade and would be expensive to replace or decarbonize as we move closer to 2050.

 

 

Cutting GHG emissions by at least half in this decade requires unprecedented policy and societal commitment

Clean energy has become affordable and reliable enough to aim high in this decade. But the pace of transformation needed to achieve the 50+ percent target will need an unprecedented, whole-of-government approach. Fortunately, the federal government has a host of proven tools at its disposal, including regulations, standards, and incentives to catalyze the transition already underway at some level in many states, cities, and companies. While the Biden administration can deliver strong ambition with existing authority, Congress could confer important legislative support to mobilize sizeable capital for clean energy, rapidly shift consumer choices towards clean technologies and create the lasting momentum needed to drive decisive progress at the necessary nonstop pace. Importantly, all policies can and should be designed such that all Americans share equitably in the benefits of the energy system transition (refer to my colleague's blog for a deeper dive into policy roadmaps). 

A bold 2030 NDC is strikingly aligned with the Administration’s Build Back Better priorities

A committed transition to a clean economy would confer a much-needed economic boon in the pandemic-induced recession by putting millions of Americans to work every year (here and here). This is owing to new employment created by the flurry of construction activity in clean infrastructure like wind and solar plants and electric transmission lines that vastly offsets job losses in the fossil fuel industry. A bold NDC would also significantly improve public health—avoiding tens of thousands of premature deaths from the health-damaging pollution that characterizes our current fossil fuel-reliant economy. Ensuring access to new employment opportunities for communities most impacted by the transition and prioritizing the reduction of climate and health pollution in overburdened communities could also bolster the Administration’s equity goals.

We can no longer afford any wavering on addressing the climate crisis. Climate change is already harming millions of Americans, from worsening asthma and public health to destructive and woefully costly extreme weather events. Fortunately, the Biden administration has all the tools to adopt a bold NDC and join the ranks of leaders like the European Union and the U.K. An ambitious NDC—pledging to cut U.S. GHG pollution by at least 50 percent by 2030—is not only critical to avert a climate catastrophe, but also proffers a valuable opportunity to pull the U.S. economy out of the recession and position it as a leader in the already burgeoning and long-term global clean energy economy.

Opportunity knocks: we must answer the call.

About the Authors

Rachel Fakhry

Policy Analyst, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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