The U.S. plan to avoid extreme climate change is running out of time

The Washington Post
The Washington Post

In 101 months, the United States will have achieved President Joe Biden’s most important climate promise – or it will have fallen short. Right now it is seriously falling short, and for each month that passes, it becomes harder to succeed until at some point – perhaps very soon – it will become virtually impossible. That’s true for the United States, and also true for the planet, as nearly 200 nations strive to tackle climate change with a fast-dwindling timeline for doing so.

This is crucial context for the news late last week that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., after months of negotiations with his fellow Democrats, is balking at new climate policies. The stated reason for Manchin’s hesitation is raging inflation, a serious concern. But there is always a reason to delay action, and time is not forgiving when it comes to the warming climate.

At the center of the Biden administration’s climate policy is a promise, made in 2021, to slash U.S. emissions by 50 to 52% by the end of 2030 – 101 months from this August – against what they were in 2005. Achieving this target would require a significant reshuffling of the American economy – millions of new electric cars on the road, transformations of key industries to rely more on renewable energy, and probably millions of jobs focused on making this happen.

The climate legislation making its way through the Senate would have sped that transition along through enhanced tax credits for renewable energy and electric vehicles, among other energy-related incentives and provisions.

Moving fast is necessary to maintain consistency with 2015’s Paris climate agreement, in which nations agreed to take significant measures to avoid the levels of global warming associated with severe climate impact. Scientists broadly agree that emissions need to be cut approximately in half by 2030 to avoid those outcomes.

The targets remain. But after Manchin’s move, the legislation to achieve it seems to have been tabled indefinitely.

“The current official U.S. targets are ambitious,” said John Sterman, an energy policy expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They are also necessary to create a prosperous, healthy climate. And the policies that the administration had proposed – transportation, buildings, et cetera – had the potential to get us there.”

“But with Senator Manchin’s position . . . we’re not going to be able to do that,” Sterman said.

In many ways, in fact, thinking we have until 2030 to cut emissions to the target dramatically overstates how much time there actually is. As more time elapses, the amount of emissions that need to be cut grows greater in the remaining months. It is like a ship taking on water – if you wait to start baling, you have to bale ever faster, and if you wait long enough, at some point you no longer have a chance to reach shore.

The Biden goal was already a major reach. So far, the United States has only shaved emissions by a sliver of what the administration intends. Emissions in 2005 were 6.6 billion tons of greenhouse gases, and emissions in 2019 and 2020 were 5.8 and 5.2 billion tons, respectively, according to official national figures.

Thus, current cuts from 2005 levels amount to either 12 or 21%, depending on whether you use emissions figures for 2020 (which represent the most recent official numbers). That’s a real issue, because emissions plunged in 2020 because of coronavirus-related shutdowns, but they are bouncing back – and nobody expects that blip to matter much to the long-term trend.

Setting the pandemic aside and instead going with what was achieved through 2019, the Biden administration would still have to reduce emissions by 2.5 billion tons or so of greenhouse gases in just over eight years. That’s slightly larger than the emissions of two Japans or one India.

And yet it was at least close to possible, analysts say, through a combination of current momentum and policy.

A major part of the goal can be achieved by riding the ongoing downward trend in emissions, which reflect government policies and actions taken by the private sector, particularly the energy industry, to become more sustainable. For instance, a recent analysis by the Rhodium Group, a research firm that closely tracks emissions policies, found that the United States is already on track to reduce emissions by somewhere between 24 and 35% below their 2005 level by 2030.

But that’s nowhere near enough to meet the pledge.

The current blowup of negotiations with Manchin “makes it harder, and it makes any additional actions by the executive branch that much more critical. The stakes are now that much higher,” said John Larsen, a partner with Rhodium.

Several analyses have suggested that policies like those contained in the Senate legislation could have accounted for about a billion additional tons of annual U.S. emissions reductions.

“We estimate the Senate budget deal likely would have cut emissions by roughly 800 million to 1 billion metric tons in 2030,” said Princeton University professor Jesse Jenkins, an energy policy expert and modeler.

In Jenkins’s analysis, there would still be a gap, albeit a small one – of hundreds of millions of tons – to achieve the Biden administration pledge.

Somewhat separate from all of this is what it means for the Earth – after all, every major emitter has to act or else each one’s progress, or lack thereof, will be moot.

The Climate Action Tracker, a tool created by a group of scientists to assess emissions progress, rates the U.S. target as “almost sufficient.” This means that it is consistent, if other major emitter act with similar force, with holding total planetary warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

But it is not enough to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), currently just a few ticks of the thermometer away, the group says.

Two degrees Celsius of warming is severe, and 1.5 degrees is also quite bad – but noticeably less so in some respects. In a 1.5-degree world, scientists say, there would be somewhat more time for small islands to adapt to sea level rise. There would be severe damage to coral reefs but, perhaps, they would still exist in some regions. And the Arctic would still have sea ice in the summer in most or all years – probably avoiding one of the most dangerous feedbacks that could further amplify climate change.

In 101 months, U.S. emissions are certainly going to be lower, but the issue was always the speed of change.

That’s why the death, for now, of climate legislation greatly increases the chance that the United States won’t make its target.