On 31 March 2015, the US submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to reduce net GHG emissions by 26–28% below 2005 in 2025 incl. land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) (equivalent to 24-31% below 2005 or 12–19% below 1990 levels of GHG emissions excluding LULUCF). Based on this target, and taking into account the effect of forest and other land use accounting, we rate the US “medium” – it is not yet consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort than the USA.
The USA’s Copenhagen pledge is to reduce net GHG emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 (equivalent to about 16-20% below 2005 and 3-8% below 1990 GHG emissions levels excl. LULUCF).
According to our analysis, the finalised Clean Power Plan issued in August 2015 contributes to moving towards the emission levels indicated in the INDC. But the US will need to implement additional policies to reach its proposed targets. The planned policies (e.g. the additional actions mentioned in the Climate Action Plan), if fully implemented, are sufficient to meet the 2020 pledge. The US will have to implement additional policies on top of the currently planned policies to reach its 2025 pledge, which requires a faster reduction rate than the rate before 2020.
The US’s INDC clearly highlights ongoing actions to enhance the regulatory framework, so the achievement of the 2020 and 2025 targets seems feasible. Further positive aspects of the document are the 2025 timeframe for the INDC, a clear description of accounting rules and other assumptions, and the coverage of the complete economy and all gases. An area of potential concern is the net-net accounting approach, meaning the targets are set against base year emissions including emissions and removals from the land sector. The uncertainty in the land sector and large fluctuations reported indicate some uncertainty in the reduction in GHG emissions excl. emissions from the land sector.
The “medium” rating indicates that the US climate plans are at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution. If all countries would choose the least ambitious end of their respective range, global temperature increase would be well above 2°C. The emissions reduction target could therefore be strengthened to reflect the United States’ high capability and responsibility.
After an initial announcement in November 2014, on 31 March 2015, the US submitted its INDC, proposing that by 2025, it would aim at reducing emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels. This is consistent with a linear interpolation between the 2020 pledge and the national long-term 2050 target, and is set on a net-net accounting basis .
There is some uncertainty surrounding the consequences of the INDC on reductions of GHG emissions excluding the land sector) due to uncertainties in the estimate of land sector removals and in the projections for these removals in 2020 and 2025. Based on the data in the US Sixth National Communication  we estimate this uncertainty as plus or minus ~2%, meaning that the 26-28% reduction target in net emissions would likely result in a range of 24–31% reduction in GHG emissions excl. LULUCF below 2005 levels, depending on whether the sink from LULUCF is at the high or low end of the projections, respectively.
The United States is not a Party to the Kyoto Protocol. While a target of a 7% reduction below 1990 until 2008-–2012 was originally negotiated and agreed, the US never ratified the Protocol and the target therefore never came into force.
Under the Copenhagen Accord, the US announced an emissions reduction target of 17% below 2005 levels, around 3 to 8% below 1990 levels excl. emissions from LULUCF, by 2020. The US stated this was in line with its long-term goal of reducing emissions by 83% below 2005 by 2050 (United States Department of State, 2010).
We rated the US INDC “medium”. The target for 2025 is in line with some effort sharing approaches that focus on capability and costs. Approaches that focus on equal cumulative emissions and historic responsibility would require much more stringent reductions and partially result in negative emission allowances in all years. This presents an improvement in comparison to previous assessments (see earlier years), where those approaches were not taken into account.
We rate the 2020 pledge as “inadequate,” as it is in line only with the least stringent effort sharing categories (capability/costs). The long-term, 2050 target would also be in the “medium” range.
With currently implemented policies (also including the Clean Power Plan (CPP)), the US is expected to achieve emissions levels of approximately 6,360–6,600 MtCO2e in 2020—around 8–12% below 2005 or 2–6% above 1990 (GHGs excl. LULUCF); and between 6,220 and 6,340 MtCO2e in 2030—around 12–14% below 2005 or 0–2% above 1990 (GHGs excl. LULUCF). With a linear interpolation, this would mean a level between 6,290 and 6,470 MtCO2e in 2025, or around 10–13% below 2005 or 1–4% above 1990. These estimates of emissions levels are significantly lower than previous estimates, illustrating that the Obama administration is progressing with the implementation of further climate action.
An important step in strengthening US climate action is the “Clean Power Plan,” first proposed in 2014 and announced as a final rule in August 2015 after an extended phase of public consultation. It aims to reduce emissions from the power sector by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, by setting targets for each state individually. The states can then choose how to meet the target, e.g. by increasing the share of low-carbon electricity generation or demand side efficiency. An effective and stringent implementation of the plan can contribute significantly to moving towards the pledged emissions level. The measures implied may prevent a reversal of the shift from coal to gas due to changing market conditions. As of August 2015 we consider it as “implemented policy”. Consequently, the updated plan makes a difference of 530 MtCO2e in 2030 compared to a scenario without the Clean Power Plan, reducing the expected emissions of the USA in 2030 by roughly 10 percent.
Earlier this year, US President Obama announced a new target: to increase the share of non-hydro renewables to 20% by 2030 (The White House 2015c). This is more than the 12% share of non-hydro renewables in the US EPA’s impact analysis of the Clean Power Plan(EPA 2015). Hydro energy contributes 8% of the EPA’s analysis, so the totalshare of RE electricity generation reaches 20%. If we assume that the contribution of hydro power remains as it is in the impact analysis under the announcement for more non-hydro energy, the announcement would lead to a total share of renewable energy of 28% and, this way, would further reduce emissions by 200 MtCO2 in 2030, according to our calculations.
However, it remains open to individual states as to how they will reach their obligations under the Clean Power Plan. It is possible that, if they were obliged to adopt a higher share of renewable energy through another instrument, they might implement fewer energy efficiency measures or other low-carbon technologies and not necessarily overachieve the targets under the Clean Power Plan. It is unclear how the US will achieve the newly-announced 20% of non-hydro renewable energy, as there are no additional policy instruments either in place or in the pipeline that would lead to such an increase.
Under the current policy scenario (now including the Clean Power Plan), the US would need to implement further policies to achieve its 2020 pledge and its INDC. With the additional measures outlined by the White House in “The President’s Climate Action Plan” (CAP) in June 2013 (Executive Office of the President 2013), the US could achieve its 2020 pledge and would be close to meeting its INDC target. The achievement of the mitigation targets can also depend on the level of sinks coming from LULUCF: the National Communication projects that, in 2020, the US LULUCF sector’s sinks will absorb between 614 and 898 MtCO2e and, for 2025, 573 to 917 MtCO2e. There is high uncertainty in these projections, and the final level in future years could have an impact on whether the targets will be achieved: If the sink becomes larger than expected in the projections, it will be easier to meet the target. If the sink becomes smaller, even more policies in non-LULUCF sectors would be required.
Historically, US emissions constantly increased between 1990 and 2007. The financial crisis from 2008 saw emissions drop. In 2010 they began to increase again, but 2011 and 2012 saw a downward pressure, mainly resulting from a strong shift to natural gas as an energy source and a decrease in total energy demand. In the US, a variety of activities to address emissions are taking place in all sectors at both at State and Federal levels.
Besides actions in the power sector, an important aspect of the CAP is its aim to increase 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. Not all activities in the plan have been clearly defined yet. An overarching target included in the plan is to double energy productivity by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.
A few areas targeted by the CAP have already seen concrete activities in recent years. An Executive Order from 19 March 2015 on “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade” commits Federal agencies to a number of actions, reducing Federal Government GHG emissions by 40% by 2025 below 2008 levels (The White House 2015b). We have included this element in our current policy projections.
The CAP also mentions reducing methane emissions. In January 2015, the US EPA introduced a target to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production by 40% to 45% by 2025 below 2012 levels, and outlined a set of actions to achieve this target building on prior activities by the Administration (The White House 2015a).
According to our assessment, complying with these targets would reduce emissions to 5,820 MtCO2e in 2020 – (about 19% below 2005 or 6% below 1990), 5,660 to 5,670 in 2025 (about 22% below 2005 or 9% below 1990) and 5,610 to 5,640 MtCO2e in 2030 (about 22% below 2005 or 9–10% below 1990). This would put the US not only on a trajectory to meet its 2020 target but also close to achieving the target resulting from the INDC for 2025. Further, the plan mentions controlling HFCs and emissions from LULUCF, which need further refinement and have not been evaluated at this time.
A few areas targeted by the CAP have already seen concrete activities in recent years. The process of permitting installations of renewable energy systems on public land has been modified, which made it less complicated to prioritise renewable energy (U.S. Department of the Interior 2013b). Also, the auctioning of renewable energy projects is now an established process, which can accelerate renewables development (see for example U.S. Department of the Interior 2013a).
Further, the Government has issued various energy efficiency standards (Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy 2015) whose effects are partially included in the Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) 2015 and thus also in our current policy projections. The standards for volatile organic compounds from oil and gas industry issued in 2012 contribute to achieving the methane target and are also included in the scenario including implemented policies.
In April 2015, the US Department of Agriculture announced the USDA’s “Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture & Forestry.” (USDA 2015). It foresees a set of voluntary activities involving farmers and companies. The measures target reductions in emissions from agriculture (e.g. improved fertilizer use and other agricultural practices, avoiding methane from livestock) and land use and forestry (e.g. improved soil management, avoid deforestation and reforestation).
Planned – but not yet implemented - activities are not included in our projections of emissions with implemented policies, as these will depend on future decisions and actions. However, the framework being created at the moment is crucial for the US to prepare future actions, and demonstrates that the US government is creating opportunities to push forward climate change policies. Further, state action is an important driver of US climate policies, and dynamics on that level may lead to further reductions.
Targets for 2020 and 2025 were calculated from the national inventory submissions of 2014 (CRF 2014). The submission from 2015 is already available, however not yet in the Common Reporting Format, so that the necessary breakdowns by gas are not available. The shift of Global Warming Potentials from the Second Assessment Report (SAR) of the IPCC to the Forth Assessment Report (AR4) further complicates the use of the new data.
The US has announced that it prefers a comprehensive, land-based approach that takes advantage of the broadest scope of mitigation actions. For the post 2012 period (2013-2020), we calculated LULUCF accounting using a land-based approach that assumes net-net accounting relative to 1990, using data from the national inventories (CRF 2014). For emission projections for LULUCF, we used the range projected in the 6th National Communication.
Current policy projections
For the projections, we sum up energy-related emissions projections from EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2015 (Energy Information Administration 2015) and non-energy emissions from the 6th National Communication (U.S. Department of State 2014).We further including the effect of the Clean Power Plan, where we assume a 32% reduction of emissions from the energy sector in 2005 by 2030. The scenario “Projections excl. the Clean Power Plan” shows how emissions might develop with all policies except the Clean Power Plan.
For the Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects total annual emission reductions of 120 MtCO2e in 2025. It is not clear which share of these reductions results from agriculture and which from land use and forestry. Thus we split the reduction 50/50 between the two sectors. Further, we assume a linear increase of the reductions from today on to 2025, and stabilisation of reductions from 2025 on. We use the same approach for activities around “Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Federal Government and Across the Supply Chain”
Comparison with the US national assessment
In its 6th National Communication, the US provided emissions projections that included all policies until the end of 2012, and projections including the planned activities of the CAP. The data provided shows that the pledge may be met, but that there is substantial uncertainty around the effect of the CAP and sequestration removals. The resulting emissions are in a range between 4,900 and 5,600 MtCO2e/a incl. LULUCF in 2020 (5,520 – 6,500 MtCO2e/a excl. LULUCF). For the lower end of the range, the emissions reduction pledge will be achieved. This means that using this data, the US will need to fully implement the CAP and reach the high end of sequestration removals in order to meet its 2020 pledge.
The National Communication used AEO2013 as the basis for projections of energy related CO2 emissions and adjusts the values to match international reporting requirements. That scenario includes policies implemented up to December 2012. The EPA prepared data for non-energy related and non-CO2 emissions.
The total emissions in 2020 under the reference scenario with policies implemented until December 2012 are 6,815 MtCO2e/a excl. LULUCF in the National Communication, a 5.3% decrease in comparison to 2005 according to the document. The CAT current policy projections end up at 6,360–6,600 MtCO2e/a excl. LULUCF. The difference results mainly from the update of the AEO to the 2015 version used by CAT, which includes the effect of policies implemented until October 2014.
The CAT defines a “currently implemented policy” as any sort of regulation or legislation that is in place. Several of the activities under the President’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) do not fall into this category and are therefore excluded from the CAT “current policy scenario.” This does not mean that their implementation is less likely – indeed they may well be translated into very effective policies. However, they have not been implemented, therefore cannot be included in our “current policies” projections. One example of important action that has not been included in the calculation is the reduction of HFCs as the CAP does not spell out concrete activities regarding those. In August 2015, US EPA published a new rule under the Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP), which prohibits the use of specific HFCs in aerosols, refrigeration and air conditioning and foam blowing industries. No estimate is yet available on the impact on GHG emissions(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2015).
The CAT considers additional scenarios to reflect some of the planned policies. With the targets laid out in the Climate Action Plan to double renewable energy electricity generation (excl. large hydro), to double energy productivity and to reduce methane as announced in January, the CAT estimates emissions of 5,860 MtCO2e/a in 2020. This is within the range of the National Communication and would be sufficient to comply with the 2020 pledge.
CRF. 2014. “UNFCCC AWG-KP Submissions 2013.” Common Reporting Format.
Energy Information Administration. 2015. “Annual Energy Outlook 2015.” http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/ (August 10, 2015).
EPA. 2015. Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Clean Power Plan Final Rule. http://www.epa.gov/airquality/cpp/cpp-final-rule-ria.pdf (August 10, 2015).
Executive Office of the President. 2013. “The President’s Climate Action Plan.” Washington, D.C., USA. (26 June): 21.
Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. 2015. “Recent Federal Register Notices.”
The White House. 2015a. “FACT SHEET: Administration Takes Steps Forward on Climate Action Plan by Announcing Actions to Cut Methane Emissions.”
———. 2015b. “FACT SHEET: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Federal Government and Across the Supply Chain.”
———. 2015c. “U.S.-Brazil Joint Statement On Climate Change | Whitehouse.gov.” https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/30/us-brazil-joint-statement-climate-change (August 11, 2015).
U.S. Department of State. 2014. “Sixth National Communication of the United States of America / First Biennial Report of the United States of America under the UNFCCC.”
U.S. Department of the Interior. 2013a. “Interior Holds Second Competitive Lease Sale for Renewable Energy in Federal Waters.” Washington, D.C., USA.
———. 2013b. “Land Management Rule Will Facilitate Renewable Energy Development on Public Lands.” http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/newsroom/2013/april/nr_04_29_2013.html.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2015. “Significant New Alternatives (SNAP) Regulations.” Rule 20, 19 August 2015.
USDA. 2015. “Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry.” http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=climate-smart.html (September 2, 2015).
 The INDC states that the USA “intends to include all categories of emissions by sources and removals by sinks, and all pools and gases, as reported in the Inventory of United States Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks; to account for the land sector using a net-net approach; and to use a “production approach” to account for harvested wood products consistent with IPCC guidance. The United States may also exclude emissions from natural disturbances, consistent with available IPCC guidance.”