The announcement from the Obama administration that the United Stateâ€™s power sector would deliver a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030 was hailed by many as a breakthrough in meaningful action. John Kerry suggests the â€œUS is setting an example to the world on climate changeâ€ while Reuters lead on how the â€œU.S. unveils sweeping plan to slash power plant pollutionâ€ and the president of the World Resources Institute declares the proposals to be a â€œmomentous developmentâ€. Dig a little deeper and there is recognition that more still needs to be done. Bryony Worthington tweets â€œUS creeps towards comprehensive climate action plan. Level of cuts too low over too long a time period. Will need tightening. Just like EUâ€ whilst Connie Hedegaard (European Commissioner for Climate Action) notes how â€œfor Paris to deliver what is needed to stay below a 2Â°C increase in global temperature, all countries, including the United States, must do even more than what this reduction trajectory indicates.â€
But how much more is needed from the US and international community to meet their repeated commitment â€œto hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsiusâ€? And is the US proposal part of the solution or part of the problem?
The United Statesâ€™ plan to reduce power sector emissions by 30% by 2030 (c.f. 2005) is the jewel in the crown of US mitigation policies. Under current proposals economy-wide reductions in total emissions will be much less than 30%; Climate Action Tracker (CAT) estimates emissions will be just 10% below their 2005 level. Yet even if total emissions were to follow the example of the power sector, they would still fall far short of the countryâ€™s 2Â°C commitments enshrined in agreements from the Copenhagen Accord to the Camp David Declaration.
The EU, with emissions per person just 50% of those for a typical US citizen, needs an across the board reduction of over 80% by 2030 (c.f. 2005)1 if it is to make its fair contribution to avoiding the 2Â°C characterization of dangerous climate change. Given the higher per capita emissions of the US, reductions there would need to be greater still.
Consequently, whilst Obamaâ€™s proposition is certainly brave within the rarified political environment of Congress, it signals yet another wealthy nation whose weak domestic targets are fatally undermining international obligations around 2Â°C. The low level of ambition of the US, EU, Russia, China et al is why global emissions are set on a pathway much more aligned with a 4Â°C to 6Â°C future (~RCP8.5) than the 2Â°C of our rhetorical targets. Moreover, given that temperatures relate to the cumulative build up of CO2 in the atmosphere, failure to radically reduce emissions in the short-term locks in higher temperatures and â€œdangerousâ€ impacts, particularly for â€œpoorer populationsâ€œ. Ramping up the mitigation effort post 2030 will simply be too late. This is a challenging message with implications for policy makers (and all of us) that we have thus far refused to countenance.
So while the science and math around 2Â°C provides an unequivocal basis for radical reductions in emissions from wealthier nations, the politics continues to deliver grand but ultimately ineffectual gestures. Politically Obamaâ€™s proposal is certainly courageous and one for which he deserves credit. But scientifically, the 30% target and the collective acquiescence it has triggered, is a death sentence for many of tomorrowâ€™s more vulnerable communities.1. This assumes, in the aggregate, that non-Annex 1 nations a) significantly reduce their current rate of emissions growth b) peak their emissions by 2025 c) reduce their emissions thereafter at around 7% p.a. For more detail see: EU 2030 decarbonisationâ€¦ : why so little science?, Numerical basis for 80% decarbonisation and Beyond dangerous climate change.