The US is an economic powerhouse without peer, their world leading GDP is $17.4 trillion (2014), this is almost equivalent to the combined GDPs of the next three highest ranking countries (China, Japan and Germany). The US is the world’s biggest economy and the globe's largest per capita polluter with a carbon footprint of around 7 billion metric tons per year.
It is no secret that our current emissions trajectory is perilous. A wide variety of sources tell us that we must drastically reduce carbon emissions if we are to have a chance of staving off the worst impacts of climate change.
The Obama administration has improved on an earlier pledge to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020 (based on 2005 levels). In a recently submitted nationally determined contribution (INDC) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the US pledged to increase emissions reduction between 26 and 28 percent by 2025.
The US INDC is historic because it represents the first time that the United States has committed to reducing carbon pollution based on real world targets with real world policies and regulatory authority. The INDC pledges are central to the success of a global climate agreement at COP 21 later this year in Paris.
The US has indicated that they will realize their INDC with existing regulatory authority. The most important part being the EPA's Clean Power Plan and fuel economy standards for vehicles. The EPA's Clean Power Plan alone will reduce carbon pollution from the energy sector by 30 percent in 2030, that is equivalent to taking almost two thirds of all of America's cars and trucks off the roads.
President Obama has used his executive powers to mandate carbon emission reductions in federal buildings through cuts to energy intensity of at least 30 percent by 2015. On March 19, 2015 the President used his executive authority to instruct the federal government to cut its carbon footprint by 40 percent below 2008 levels by 2025. The White House indicates that this executive order directs federal agencies to:
- Procure a quarter of their total energy from clean sources by 2025;
- Cut energy use in federal buildings 2.5 percent per year over the next decade;
- Purchase more plug-in hybrid vehicles for federal fleets and reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions overall by 30 percent by 2025;
- Reduce water use in federal buildings 2 percent per year through 2025.
The Obama administration is not only reducing its own GHG emissions it is working with other nations to encourage them to do the same. At the end of last year Obama signed an ambitious emissions reduction deal with China the world's largest carbon emitter.
President Obama has put forth an ambitious yet achievable efficiency goal. Using efficiency standards he seeks to cut 3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030. The US is already two-thirds of the way towards that goal.
US leadership on GHG reductions are critical as this sends an important signal to the world as we head towards COP 21 in Paris. US efforts will encourage others to follow. As NRDC’s President Rhea Suh said:
"This important commitment sends a powerful message to the world: Together we can slash dangerous carbon pollution and combat climate change. This announcement builds on America’s leadership that already is delivering notable breakthroughs, such as the recent commitments by China and Mexico to join the global effort. And that bodes well for a strong international commitment to fight climate change at the Paris conference in December...Taken together, these steps will help combat the gravest environmental threat of our time."
Deeper emissions cuts will be required, but after years of sidestepping the issue current American efforts give us reason to hope. One of the biggest obstacles in the US comes from Republican lawmakers who oppose climate action. However, the Obama administration's measures are largely GOP proof, even if through some miracle a Republican succeeds in securing the Oval Office.
With this kind of leadership from the Obama administration we may very well have a shot at getting something meaningful out of the COP process. With a little bit more effort we may even be able to keep global temperature increases within the internationally agreed upon upper threshold limit of 2 degrees Celsius.