Page last updated: 20th November 2013



The USA pledged to reduce emissions by -17% relative to 2005 emissions in 2020 (equivalent to -3% relative to 1990 levels). According to our analysis, the country will not achieve this pledge without additional policies.



Pledge description

The United States is not a Party to the Kyoto Protocol. While a target of 7% reduction below 1990 was originally negotiated, it never ratified the Protocol and the target never came into force.

In the Copenhagen Accord, the USA announced reductions of 17% relative to 2005 levels. In absolute terms, this means a level of 6,235 MtCO2e in 2020 (excl. LULUCF). They also stated a long-term target of reducing emissions by 83% by 2050 (United States Department of State, 2010). At the UNFCCC workshop in April 2011, the USA reaffirmed the 17% reduction below 2005 in 2020 as an economy-wide target to be implemented through various national policy instruments. It stated that the target applies to all sectors according to the agreed IPCC guidelines for national greenhouse gas inventories. Forests will be accounted according to the broadest possible scope.

There is significant uncertainty surrounding the consequence of this target for reductions in industrial GHG emissions (all emissions excluding LULUCF) due to uncertainties in the LULUCF emission estimate. If the estimate based on official data reported in 2009 is used, this target would likely translate to a +3% increase relative to 1990 level industrial emissions, whereas the estimate based on data reported in 2010 would result in a likely -3% reduction from 1990 levels for industrial emissions. Estimates based on the CRF data reported in 2011 indicate that industrial emissions would be close to 1990 levels. The important issue is that these uncertainties arise from the same or very similar historical periods and differences are a result of technical revisions to data and methods. In addition, the USA mentioned that LULUCF adjustments may be made for natural disturbances and other factors, but details were left unclear.

Current trend description

With currently implemented policies, the USA is expected to achieve emission levels of approximately 6,760 MtCO2e in 2020 and slightly above 7,000 MtCO2e in 2030 (excl. LULUCF). It would thus not achieve its pledge, unless LULUCF accounting would add significant reductions. With additional measures as suggested by the Obama government in “The President’s Climate Action Plan” (CAP) in June 2013 (Executive Office of the President 2013), the pledge could be achieved without LULUCF.

Historically emissions have been constantly increasing between 1990 and 2007. The financial crises from 2008 led to a drop in emissions. In 2010 emissions started to increase again, but 2011 saw a downward move resulting mainly from a strong shift to natural gas as an energy source. 

In the USA, a variety of activities are taking place both on state and federal level and in all sectors. Nevertheless, a more comprehensive approach with adequate coverage and momentum could more substantially reduce emissions. One example for a current policy with a significant impact in terms of affecting the structure of a sector and reducing emissions in the long term is the second phase of standards for light duty vehicles starting in 2017. The ‘New Source Performance Standard’ limiting emission intensity of new constructed power plants, will have hardly any effect on future emissions, according to previous analysis by Ecofys and PBL (Roelfsema et al. 2013a) and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s own impact analysis (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2011). The reason for this is that currently low gas prices already favour new natural gas over coal fired power plants.

The USA’s Draft 6th National Communication contains a scenario including activities from the CAP that complies with the pledge. Although some of the activities are already underway and are building upon past efforts, the document indicates that the details of most actions are yet to be developed and speaks of the “potential scale of additional reductions” when presenting the emission scenario.

Activities planned in the CAP likely to significantly reduce emissions in the energy sector are (1) the target and supporting mechanisms of doubling renewable energy generation, and (2) the introduction of emission limits for existing coal fired power plants. Together, both policies support immediate emission reductions as well as a transformational change towards a more sustainable energy supply. Another important area in the CAP is energy efficiency in demand sectors, where it foresees for example energy efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings, different financial incentives, and energy saving measures in federal agencies. In the non-energy area, the plan includes measures around methane emissions, controlling HFCs and in the LULUCF sector, which need further refinement to be evaluated.

A few points from the CAP already manifested in concrete activities in 2013. The process to permit RE installations on public land has been changed, making it less complicated to prioritise renewable energy (U.S. Department of the Interior 2013b). Also, the auctioning of renewable energy is an established process which can be accelerated or kept moving (see for example U.S. Department of the Interior 2013a).

The emission reductions from the activities in 2013 as well as planned activities are not yet included in our quantitative analysis, as these will depend on future decisions and actions. However, the framework being created at the moment is crucial to prepare for future actions and demonstrates that the US government is creating opportunities to push forward climate change policies.

Date of pledge
January 2010



Targets for 2020 were calculated from the most recent national inventory submissions (CRF, 2013).

The US have announced that they prefer a comprehensive, land-based approach that takes advantage of the broadest scope of mitigation actions. For the post 2012 period (2013-2020), LULUCF accounting was calculated using a land-based approach, which assumes net-net accounting relative to 1990, using data from the national inventories (CRF, 2012).

Current trend

For the projections, we sum up energy related emission projections from EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2013 (US Energy Information Agency, 2013), non-CO2 emissions from the EPA’s Global Non-CO2 GHG Emissions: 1990-2030 (USEPA, 2006b), and non-energy related CO2 emissions from EDGAR 4.2 (JRC/PBL, 2012).


CRF (2013). UNFCCC AWG-KP Submissions 2013. Common Reporting Format.

CRF (2012). UNFCCC AWG-KP Submissions 2012. Common Reporting Format.

Department of the Interior, 2013a. Historic Sale for Wind Energy Development Offshore Virginia Advances President's Climate Action Plan. Washington, D.C., USA.

Department of the Interior, 2013b. Land Management Rule Will Facilitate Renewable Energy Development on Public Lands. Washington, D.C., USA.

Energy Information Administration (2013). Annual Energy Outlook 2013. with projections to 2040. Washington, D.C., USA.

Environmental Protection Agency (2012). Global Mitigation of Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases, Washington, D.C., USA.

Environmental Protection Agency (2011). Regulatory Impact Analysis. Proposed New Source Performance Standards and Amendments to the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for the Oil and Natural Gas Industry. Washington, D.C., USA.

Executive Office of the President, U.S. (2013). The President's Climate Action Plan final Washington, D.C., USA.26 June, 2013.

JRC/PBL (2012). Edgar Version 4.2 FT2010. Joint Research Centre of the European Commission/PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Roelfsema et al. (2013). Assessment of climate and energy policies of major emitting countries. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Pub No. 1096.

United States Department of State (2010). Pledge of the USA to the Copenhagen Accord. Compiled in: Compilation of economy-wide emission reduction targets to be implemented by Parties included in Annex I to the Convention, UNFCCC (2011).

US Delegation (2011). USA's presentation at the UNFCCC workshop in Bangkok 4 April 2011. United States.