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What to Look for in the New US Climate Plan (INDC)

Countries around the world are currently hard at work creating their post-2020 climate action plans, and the United States is no exception. The Obama administration is expected to submit its proposed commitment, or “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC), with the United Nations later this month, joining INDCs from Switzerland and the European Union. These national contributions will form a core part of a new universal climate agreement scheduled to be finalized in Paris in December this year.

As the world’s second largest emitter, an ambitious and comprehensive INDC from the United States could help inspire greater climate action internationally. Here’s what to look for in the forthcoming INDC:

What Is the US Likely to Propose?

Last November’s historic joint announcement by the United States and China serves as a preview for what both countries are expected to offer in the lead-up to Paris. The United States pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, while China committed to peak its CO2 emissions “around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” The U.S. INDC is expected to reiterate and formalize this goal.

A 26-28 percent reduction is challenging, but achievable. The United States will need to double the rate of emissions reductions it is currently scheduled to deliver through 2020. Without comprehensive legislation from Congress, the administration will have to make aggressive use of all the tools at its disposal—including actions to increase energy efficiency, to reduce emissions from vehicles, power plants and production of oil and natural gas, and to reduce use of hydroflourocarbons.

What Should we Look for in the U.S. Proposal?

The proposal is expected to lay out several details on the United States’ emissions-reduction goal. Here are some important issues to watch:

1. Will the US say anything about how it will achieve its target?

The United States is likely to commit only to an overall GHG emissions outcome, not to a specific pathway for achieving it. However, clarifying the approaches the administration intends to pursue can help provide assurance to the international community that the U.S. target is both achievable and durable.

Importantly, the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan – a key element in achieving the anticipated 2025 target – is being implemented through formal regulatory processes based on existing laws rather than through executive orders that could be easily reversed by a new president. This approach should ensure that these initiatives will continue reducing emissions long after President Obama leaves office.

2. How will the US characterize the fairness and ambition of its contribution?

To limit Earth’s temperature rise to 2 degrees C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, global emissions must peak by 2020 and then phase out altogether in the second half of this century. So it’s imperative that countries’ post-2020 reductions be as ambitious as possible. Considering the substantial differences among countries in terms of their historic emissions, their current per capita and total emissions, their capacity to reduce them, and the opportunities they have to take action, fairness is also a critical dimension. Countries are expected to provide their own assessments of how they consider their contributions to be “fair and ambitious.” The international community will look to the United States to acknowledge its critical role in addressing the problem. The country could also incorporate an assessment of the many benefits that climate action can bring to the U.S. economy.

3. Will the US meet a high bar for transparency?

INDCs must be fully transparent in order to build trust amongst countries and ensure that people can assess their impact on national and global GHG emissions and track progress. The Lima Call for Climate Action outlines guidance on transparency, which WRI researchers have further developed through our Open Book Initiative. Among other issues, it is important that the U.S. INDC be clear about the base year and emission level from which reductions will be calculated, whether and how it intends to use market mechanisms like offsets to achieve its target, and how it will account for emissions and removals from the land use and forestry sector.

What’s Next for US GHG Reduction Commitments?

Early analyses indicate that while the United States’ proposal to reduce emissions by as much as 28 percent represents a significant commitment through 2025, the country will need to continue to accelerate its decarbonization efforts over time to help the world stay on track to limit global warming to 2 degrees C. As WRI’s Seeing Is Believing showed, the United States has countless examples of low-carbon approaches that offer immediate economic returns, even before accounting for the benefits of avoiding climate impacts. Deeper reductions will be increasingly available as technology trends make clean power and other low-carbon solutions more affordable. The United States must seize these opportunities as they present themselves to do its fair share to address this global problem.

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