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22 April 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 4:57am

How ambitious is Joe Biden’s pledge to cut US emissions by 50 per cent?

The US will struggle to hit its own climate target – but some argue it should have aimed even higher.

By Emily Tamkin

US President Joe Biden kicked off a global climate summit on Thursday with an announcement that the United States will cut emissions by 50 to 52 per cent by 2030. The target is roughly double that set by US President Barack Obama in 2015.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the pledge as a “game-changer.” And it’s certainly a reversal from Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement and criticised wind energy.

But is the plan actually ambitious? That depends on whether one considers national politics and economics, or international justice.

“It’s incredibly ambitious – both relative to what the United States has achieved so far (13 per cent in 2005-2019) but also relative to what we need to do en route to 2050,” Nikos Tsafos, interim director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the New Statesman.

[See also: America’s race to net zero]

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To hit the target, he explained, the US will need to not only take out all emissions from the power sector, but also decrease emissions in transportation, “where the United States has a far worse record,” by roughly 40 per cent. That will be hard to achieve politically: as Tsafos noted, “Many of the levers to achieve this target depend on passing the American Jobs Plan” (Biden’s controversial investment proposal that will struggle to make it through a divided Congress), particularly when it comes to decreasing emissions in the electric power sector and increasing use of electric vehicles to drive down transportation emissions.

And there are economic realities to consider, too.

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“There’s just the reality of what our economy looks like and what our economy runs on,” said Carolyn Kissane, clinical professor at New York University’s Centre for Global Affairs.

There will be those, she acknowledged, who said that the US should have gone in saying that it will aim to cut emissions by 60 or 70 or even 100 per cent. But even with 50 per cent, Kissane said: “They’re probably not going to hit the target.”

So much of the United States is still dependent on fossil fuels. The Biden administration is suggesting that moving away from fossil fuels is about job creation (“The countries that take decisive actions now will be the ones that reap the clean energy benefits of the boom that’s coming,” Biden said on Thursday). But job creation takes time, and overpromising comes with political costs.

[See also: Leader: A man of action]

“This is about transitioning the economy and decoupling away from fossil fuels,” Kissane said. “It will happen. But the timeline may be longer than 2030.”

Some, however – such as Daniel Aldana Cohen, co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal – disagree. Even though the US likely won’t achieve the goal it set, they think it nevertheless should have aimed higher.

Aldana Cohen pointed to a report by Friends of the Earth which made the case that the United States, historically the largest emitter and now the second largest emitter behind China, should reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 195 per cent below 2005 levels: 70 per cent domestically and 125 per cent in the form of financial and international support to other countries.

It’s the global economy as a whole that needs to halve emissions by 2030, Aldana Cohen explained. “The US isn’t doing its fair share by only committing to that.”

To Aldana Cohen, the constraints are financial and organisational. The United States needs to be spending more, but that alone isn’t enough: it should be committing more organisationally to make sure that spending is specifically targeted to make an impact. Putting money into the economy, Aldana Cohen noted, is “very different from [saying] ‘we’re going to hire 50,000 people to supervise retrofitting 10 to 20 million homes’”.

Still, he said, “We haven’t exhausted politically the opening that is there right now.” There’s still room to grow, and push, and invest. He pointed to Roosevelt’s New Deal, when, every year, grassroots pressure pushed the government to do more.

“If this is the only shot we get in the next four to eight years, then it’s pretty catastrophic,” he said. But “it seems plausible we’ll get more shots.”

There’s also the small matter of how the rest of the world reacts. The Biden target, Tsafos said, is “a good nudge other countries to increase their own ambition and to commit to specific steps that help get us there”. But international responses on Thursday varied significantly: from Japan, which increased its own target; to Russia, which said it would significantly cut net emissions but did not name a target; to China, the world’s largest emitter, which did not announce new targets.