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What a fair climate target looks like for the US, the largest historical carbon emitter

Biden is about to announce a new 2030 climate target. Will it go far enough?

A home flattened by a cyclone.
Damaged homes in East Flores on April 5, 2021, after Cyclone Seroja dumped rain on Indonesia and East Timor.
Reynold Atagoran/AFP via Getty Images

On April 22, President Biden will convene global leaders for a virtual climate summit in a bid to reassert US leadership and motivate countries to cut emissions much more aggressively.

Of course, the US is only just recommitting to climate action itself after a long leadership vacuum. During his presidency, Donald Trump tore down dozens of environmental regulations and withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement, undermining global progress to reduce emissions.

Now, to reassure the world that the US takes the climate threat seriously, Biden plans to announce a new 2030 climate target under the Paris agreement ahead of the summit.

The administration is considering a goal to cut emissions somewhere between 48 and 53 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. This is in line with proposals from many green groups, which have coalesced around a 50 percent reduction target. While that goal will require significant changes, to take place in less than a decade, many recent studies show it is within reach.

But a new report, produced by a group of environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth and the youth-driven Sunrise Movement, approaches the question from a different angle. Instead of determining what is feasible for the US, they start by asking: What should the US’s responsibility be in reducing global emissions to keep the planet from warming to dangerous levels?

The result is a much more audacious vision for US emissions reductions in 2030: 195 percent.

That’s right — they are proposing that the US’s true responsibility isn’t just to eliminate all its emissions by 2030 (which would be 100 percent) but to go even further.

The advocacy groups acknowledge that it isn’t actually feasible for the US to pull this off within its own borders. Instead, they suggest that the country reduce its domestic carbon footprint by 70 percent and contribute the remaining 125 percent by financing developing countries’ emissions reductions.

The authors argue that if the US hit these targets, it would be contributing its “fair share” toward tackling climate change, as the world’s largest historical emitter and wealthiest nation.

Still, the number stretches the imagination compared to other proposals that hew closer to the political reality. But that’s the point. “If we frame our understanding always relative to what we can actually imagine this current Senate doing, it’s not a discussion about what’s actually needed,” said Sivan Kartha, a US-based senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and co-author of the report.

Biden’s new target will inevitably be politically constrained. But as we hurtle toward a future climate that will unleash severe impacts on the people least responsible for the problem, it is worth pausing to consider this question of fairness further.

A broad vision of US climate responsibility — and how much it might cost

To come up with an idea of what the US owes the rest of the world in the climate fight, a broader coalition of civil society groups under the US Climate Action Network met to forge the 195 percent proposal last summer.

The process, they argued, should start by casting back in time. As the animation below shows, the US stands out as the biggest historical emitter by a wide margin.

The groups chose to look at the emissions since 1950, when the global economy and emissions really took off. The cumulative emissions figure is relevant because once carbon dioxide molecules enter the atmosphere, they linger for hundreds of years — so past emissions are still very much shaping the trajectory of global warming.

The other major factor in the coalition’s fairness calculation is the capacity any given nation has to tackle the problem. They use a nation’s income as an approximation for capacity but exclude income from individuals below a certain poverty level.

Between these two factors, the coalition concluded that the US is responsible for 39 percent of the global effort to tackle climate change. (You can play around with the Climate Equity calculator to see the assumptions behind the final outcome.)

To take on that share of the burden, the US would have to reduce emissions by 195 percent, or 14 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, by 2030 from the 2005 level in order to stay in line with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has showed is required to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But, as mentioned above, the coalition proposes the US only cut its own emissions 70 percent, or by about 4 gigatons domestically.

“The 70 percent is not our fair share, it’s what we can manage to do if we really put our minds and muscles to it with the US proper, and the rest of that fair share [...] would need to be done by cooperating with other countries — poorer countries,” Kartha explained.

USA Fair Shares NDC Report

As for the US responsibility to help other countries, the new report also proposed a corresponding financial commitment. Using a low estimate for the cost of reducing a ton of carbon, the authors calculate that it would cost the US $570 billion by 2030 to help other countries reduce emissions enough to meet their 195 percent goal.

But to also begin to compensate countries for the impacts of climate change already in motion from current warming, they argue that the US should funnel similar amounts to adaptation and “loss and damage.”

While funding adaptation would help countries reduce suffering caused by a warmer climate in the near term, funding for “loss and damage” would serve as a form of reparations to compensate countries for irrecoverable damage, say, from sea level rise. The total, then, would be somewhere in the order of $1.6 trillion by 2030.

These are just initial estimates because these losses are so difficult to calculate. “The questions on the finance side are actually way more — painfully — complex,” said Kartha.

To give some perspective, Biden recently proposed spending roughly $1 trillion on the US clean energy transition over the next eight years, and progressives have called for that amount to be spent annually.

Still, $1.6 trillion for other countries is way beyond anything the US has ever openly contemplated. So far, we have only given $1 billion total in funding to the Green Climate Fund, the United Nations mechanism that supports developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, because Trump refused to provide further support.

These numbers might be very ambitious — but the US should move toward them

The coalition isn’t entirely alone in pushing for a much more ambitious 2030 target. The think tanks Climate Analytics and the NewClimate Institute also proposed a similar fair share: 75 percent for domestic cuts, with further support given to overseas efforts.

But the question looms: How technically feasible would achieving such a target be?

The new report doesn’t reference any particular study informing the choice of a 70 percent domestic target. A 71 percent target was featured in Sen. Bernie Sanders’s climate plan as a presidential candidate. Most studies have focused on lower targets, although engineer-inventor Saul Griffith has modeled a path to 70 to 80 percent cuts by 2035.

Dan Lashof, US director for the World Resources Institute, which has recommended a target of 50 percent, said, “Scientifically there is a good case for going much further. I personally don’t see the political or economic forces aligning to get us up into the range of 60 to 70 percent reductions from 2005 levels by 2030. I would love to be wrong, but that’s my judgment.”

Just reaching 50 percent cuts will require a significant economy-wide effort, including phasing out all US coal plants by 2030. And the Trump years have put the US at a disadvantage compared to other developed countries like the UK and EU where a stable political commitment to climate action has allowed governments to target 68 and 55 percent cuts, respectively.

“There’s no question that the four years under the Trump administration put the US behind the eight-ball and makes the job harder,” said Lashof.

Karen Orenstein, the climate and energy director of the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth, who also co-authored the new report, acknowledged that it is unlikely to gain traction politically. “I don’t expect many members of Congress to embrace these numbers, but I also think that you see more new and existing progressive members who are talking about a sea change in how we approach these things,” she said.

While Biden himself is unlikely to embrace the proposal, Orenstein argued that it reflects his approach to addressing racial and social injustice through climate action domestically, including by allocating 40 percent of the benefits of climate investments to disadvantaged communities. To be a global climate leader, Biden should extend that focus on equity overseas as well. “Biden so far has done a good job talking about centering environmental justice,” she said, “and you can’t restrict that to US borders.”

Clarification, April 9, 2021: The story has been updated to clarify that the estimated cost of reducing one ton of carbon that the report authors used to arrive at a proposal of $570 billion in US climate mitigation finance to other countries is a low estimate, but emissions are currently being eliminated at lower costs.

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