The first 100 days of U.S. President Biden’s administration saw a flurry of new action and commitments on climate. He quickly rejoined the Paris Agreement, activated agencies across the federal government to be part of the climate change solution, and proposed a once-in-a-generation $2 trillion investment in infrastructure and jobs for the clean energy economy.
Biden announced the new target at the outset of the Leaders Summit on Climate, organized by the United States on Earth Day, April 22, 2021. The Leaders Summit was an opportunity to revive global cooperation on climate and featured world leaders, business executives, and climate and environmental champions.
This new target comes against a backdrop of mixed progress on climate since President Obama announced the first U.S. emissions-reduction commitment in 2014. The Trump administration spent four years rolling back and weakening important climate and pollution regulations. The past five years have seen some of the most damaging floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires in U.S. history. And global emissions continue trending upward, rising at least 4% since 2014. However, despite President Trump’s efforts, U.S. emissions declined 2% from 2015 to 2019, in part because of an unprecedented groundswell of climate action by U.S. states, cities, businesses and others, as well as organizing by youth activists, that helped to raise ambition at a time when federal leadership was absent.
All of this culminated in Biden setting a target to cut emissions in half by the end of this decade — a goal that is not only achievable, but will create numerous economic and health benefits and millions of good-paying jobs.
Here are six words to describe this historic announcement:
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the Leaders Summit that this administration is committed to do more to address the climate crisis than any previous administration. The new target of 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030 increases the average annual pace of reductions by 30% from the 2025 target set by President Obama, and doubles the pace from the earlier target set under the Copenhagen Accord of a 17% reduction by 2020. This pace exceeds the average annual rate needed to reach net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050, something Biden called for in an executive order in January.
Achieving the new commitment will require bold steps across all sectors of the economy — each necessary to both near-term and mid-century goals. President Biden has targeted 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. He plans to set vehicle emissions standards and find ways to reduce emissions from international shipping and aviation. He proposes large building retrofits and new energy codes to ensure all buildings are highly efficient and electrified. He promises to support electrification, efficiency, carbon capture and hydrogen use in industry. And he commits to invest in forest restoration and climate-smart agriculture, phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and reduce methane emissions from oil and gas, agriculture and waste. It is truly a “whole-of-economy" approach.
Analysis by WRI, alongwithmanyothers, shows that there are many pathways to cut emissions by 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, and that doing so will create millions of good jobs, make our economy more competitive, and reduce death and disease from air pollution.
Research shows that the country can take advantage of trends already underway to phase out uneconomical coal-fired power plants, triple the rate at which we are building wind and solar farms, and increase the electric vehicles (EV) market from 2% of sales to more than 50%, all by the end of this decade. With the falling costs of EV technology and the opportunity for the United States to lead on EV battery manufacturing, the economic benefits of clean cars are quickly outpacing their upfront costs.
Infrastructure, like that proposed in Biden’s American Jobs Plan, is key to support the growing clean energy economy. That means modernizing the grid to allow for more cheap wind and solar. It also means deploying ubiquitous EV charging stations, to allow individuals, businesses and cities to electrify their vehicles.
The Biden administration also has several regulatory tools at its disposal to tackle emissions. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan said the agency is advancing regulations to limit carbon emissions from power plants and vehicles, the two largest sources of U.S. emissions. The administration also plans to advance more aggressive methane standards on oil and gas operations, which contribute a significant amount of fugitive emissions.
This would build upon major energy legislation Congress passed in December 2020 to phase down HFCs, super-pollutants used in refrigeration and air conditioning; expand investments in wind, solar, the electricity grid, energy storage and weatherization of low-income housing; and increase energy efficiency upgrades of schools and federal buildings.
Biden’s whole-of-government approach will be complemented by a whole-of-America approach through U.S. state, local and private sector action and partnerships. The 2019 Accelerating America's Pledge analysis found that ambitious action from states and local actors could reduce U.S. emissions 37% below 2005 by 2030. An “All-in” strategy that pairs local climate action with aggressive federal engagement could achieve the 50% reduction goal by 2030.
Not only is the low-carbon, clean energy transition affordable, it is an immense opportunity for the U.S. economy. A recent WRI report found that 41 U.S. states are already growing their economies while reducing their emissions. A major motivation is the creation of good jobs.
Investing in wind and solar creates twice as many jobs as the same investment in fossil fuel production, and restoring degraded lands can be a major source of employment. Plus, the mean hourly wages for clean energy jobs are 8-19% higher than the national average. Widespread electrification of the economy could support up to 25 million good-paying jobs over the next 15 years and 5 million sustained jobs by mid-century — all while saving households an average of $2,000 annually in energy costs and better health outcomes.
Lastly, it is also essential that the policies and investments are designed to address underlying racial and social justice issues and help build wealth within disadvantaged and marginalized communities. Biden’s American Jobs Plan commits to ensuring that at least 40% of the benefits from its clean energy investments will accrue to these communities.
2020 set a new record of 22 climate and weather disasters in the United States that each cost over $1 billion, for a total economic toll of more than $95 billion. Without new policies, the annual economic damages from climate change could reach 1-3% of U.S. GDP by the end of the century; up to 10% in the worst-case scenario. Extreme heat, sea level rise and crop yield declines will hit the South and parts of the Midwest the hardest.
This is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world faces dire impacts unless all nations take unprecedented action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels by cutting emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero around mid-century. Investments in resilience, in addition to mitigation, are necessary to protect communities from further harm.
Human health is also compromised by our current energy system. Poor air quality is the leading environmental risk to people, particularly those living in urban areas, and responsible for more than 7 million premature deaths annually worldwide. Most of this is driven by power plants, vehicles, and industry burning fossil fuels and generating air pollution like ozone, smog, particulate matter and greenhouse gases. Additionally, human health impacts are not felt equally. It is a burden borne most by low-income communities and communities of color. One study found that white populations in the United States experienced 17% less air pollution than was caused by producing the goods and services they consumed, while Black and Hispanic communities experienced 56% and 63% more pollution, respectively. It is a dire matter of equity and justice to address the dual crises of climate and environmental pollution.
This new target is one component of a comprehensive national climate policy consistent with the Paris Agreement. To raise the feasibility and credibility of the U.S. NDC, it needs a more detailed action plan, along with further commitments to the international community.
President Biden announced that his National Climate Task Force is developing a national climate strategy to be issued later this year. Obama released his Climate Action Plan just before the 2014 target. To achieve this new target, the strategy must involve steps to rapidly deploy proven clean energy technology we have today, lower the cost for emerging technology, and phase in standards to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution.
While the Biden administration has several tools at its disposal, it is also imperative that Congress opens more avenues to achieve a 50% reduction. In addition to historic investments in domestic infrastructure and manufacturing, Congress could codify a national Clean Energy Standard — analogous to the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that many states already have — to ensure all electricity is generated without emissions by 2035. Another effective tool is to price or tax carbon pollution, which would help lower emissions quickly in the power sector and, if applied economy-wide, help decarbonize the most challenging sectors, such as industry. There are positive signs from Congress with the recent introduction of the CLEAN Future Act and the Clean Energy for America Act.
The United States is the world’s second-largest emitter — responsible for 13% of global emissions — and largest historical cumulative emitter. To foster international climate diplomacy, it must use its position of leadership to encourage greater ambition by peer nations. The new NDC is helping persuade other countries to step up their emissions-reduction goals and match or exceed new commitments from China, Japan, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, India, South Africa and other major emitters.
To fully re-establish itself as a global leader, the United States also needs to complement its emissions-reduction target with a significant increase in financial support for developing countries — particularly to pursue clean energy, reduce deforestation, and build resilience to climate impacts. Biden’s recent FY22 budget request and the International Climate Finance Plan he launched at the Leaders Summit on Climate starts to ramp up finance, but the U.S. will need to do more to meet the urgent support needs of vulnerable countries and position the country as a leader among developed country donors. For example, the $1.2 billion Biden requested for the Green Climate Fund does not even deliver on the $2 billion pledge made by the Obama-Biden administration, let alone match the level of effort other developed countries have shown by doubling their commitments.
Coupled with the newly announced ambitious emissions-reduction commitment, more climate finance can further global ambition at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021.
After a four-year absence of federal leadership on climate, both domestically and internationally, Biden’s Earth Day announcement sets a renewed tone for global cooperation and concerted action to address this shared crisis. Yet achieving this national target and putting the world on track to a clean, safe and prosperous future requires more than just words. It demands sustained effort every day from now through COP26, over the next four years, and every year through 2050. The Biden-Harris administration is poised to do that, understanding that the world cannot achieve its aspirations without the United States, and the United States cannot achieve its goals without the rest of the world.