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Obama’s Greenhouse Gas Target for 2025 is Ambitious—But Achievable

The blockbuster climate announcement in Beijing on November 12 unveiled new targets for both China and the United States. Obama announced a target to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, while President Xi announced targets to have China’s carbon dioxide emissions peak around 2030 or earlier, and to increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy to around 20 percent by 2030. The renewed collaboration between US and China on climate change could be an historic turning point.

The U.S. target represents a serious commitment to reduce emissions beyond the 17 percent reduction target for 2020 made in Copenhagen in 2009, and would be aligned with a path to reduce U.S. emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The target range of reductions for 2025 is ambitious yet achievable under existing U.S. law. Nevertheless, in the decade ahead, future Congresses will need to take positive steps to keep the United States on track to achieving a low-carbon economy by mid-century.

Some of the major components the Obama administration will use to reach this target are clear from the U.S. Climate Action Plan released in June 2013 and from other announced initiatives. Actions already undertaken include new GHG and fuel economy standards for light-duty vehicles and stronger appliance efficiency standards.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan will reduce emissions from the power sector by 28 percent in 2025. In addition, Obama has directed EPA and the Transportation Department to set new GHG and fuel efficiency standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. EPA recently proposed rules to phase down the uses of certain hydro-fluorocarbons with high global warming potential and will allow the use of alternatives that warm the planet less. The administration is also working to address methane emissions from natural gas systems and other sources. These are the types of actions WRI identified in Can The US Get There From Here? that would lead to ambitious cuts in GHG emissions in the 2020s.

Beyond these specific federal policies, many states are taking the lead to reduce carbon pollution from their power sectors, with renewable portfolio standards in 29 states and the District of Columbia and energy efficiency savings targets in 24 states. In addition, California and the northeast region of the U.S. both have cap-and-trade systems aimed at cutting GHG emissions.

Innovation and technology also have the potential to bring down costs and make it easier to meet -- or even exceed -- the proposed targets. Recent decreases in the price of wind and solar power are likely to continue, spurred by technological innovation and economies of scale. Demographic trends can also aid the shift to a low carbon economy, e.g., the growth in the annual vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. has slowed in recent years as young adults appear to be driving less than their counterparts in earlier decades.

To meet its 2020 target and the newly announced 2025 target, the United States will have to move effectively on multiple fronts, addressing various economic sectors and emissions from carbon dioxide and non-carbon dioxide sources. As shown by the recent WRI working paper Seeing is Believing: Creating a New Climate Economy in the United States, the economic impacts can be positive:

A growing body of evidence finds that economic growth and tackling climate change can be achieved together … [There are] many real-world examples where sustained technological progress and public policies are creating opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while delivering net economic benefits. In addition, a number of emerging new technologies could unlock even more opportunities to achieve reductions sooner and faster.

The US-China announcement also strengthened cooperation on climate and clean energy. The two countries are extending and expanding their joint Clean Energy Research Centers (CERCs). The three existing CERCs focus on building efficiency, clean vehicles and advanced coal technologies including carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS/CCS). The centers aren't physical buildings, but provide a platform for researchers in each country to work together, accelerating innovation in the process. The effort will now have an additional five years to continue the collaboration. The announcement also added a new CERC focusing on the intersection of energy and water. This extension indicates both governments are confident that this type of collaboration is effective, meaningful and generates results that make it more likely to meet climate targets.

WRI commends the U.S. and China for putting their initial pledges on the negotiating table so early, creating momentum in the lead up to the global climate agreement in Paris. With these two top emitting countries making significant commitments to curb their emissions, they are paving the way for nations as a whole to avoid dangerous degrees of climate change.

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