The Trump Administration has continued with its campaign to systematically walk back US federal climate policy. If it successfully implements all the proposed actions, greenhouse gas emissions projections for the year 2030 could increase by up to 400 MtCO2e1 over what was projected when President Trump first took office. That’s almost as much as the entire state of California emitted in 2016.
In a series of rollbacks, the Trump Administration has put forward a weak replacement for the Clean Power Plan, proposed to freeze vehicle efficiency standards after 2020, and will not enforce regulations to limit highly potent HFC emissions. The administration will also allow methane leaks from oil and gas production to continue for longer before they are found and fixed. Furthermore, the administration has instructed government agencies to change their climate science methodology.
In 2018, the US overtook Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest producer of crude oil. It is also the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and increased LNG exports by 53% in 2018. Globally, the power sector needs to decarbonise by 2050 to stay within the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal; gas is not a long-term solution to deep decarbonisation.
Against this background, climate action has forcefully entered the political debate in the United States following the introduction of the “Green New Deal”(GND) resolution to Congress. The resolution, which is highly unlikely to pass under the current administration, calls for economy-wide action to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition.” If the US were to enact legislation under the kind of framework set out in the GND, it would be a major step in the right direction. The GND does not specify a timeframe to reach net-zero GHG emissions. However, a US pledge to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 would get a CAT rating of “1.5°C Paris Agreement Compatible.”
The GND has already sparked inspiration in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, where some Democratic candidates are also putting forward their own progressive climate plans.
In contrast, the CAT would rate the existing US target under the Paris Agreement “Insufficient”, as it is not stringent enough to limit warming to 2°C, let alone 1.5˚C. Based on the Trump Administration’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement which therefore nullifies the target, we rate the US “Critically insufficient.”
In May 2019, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution to keep the US in the Paris Agreement, the first major legislation on climate change in nearly ten years to win congressional approval. Although symbolically important, such a resolution is, however, unlikely to get the necessary approval of the Senate. On the CAT rating scale, we would rate US current policies as “Highly insufficient.”
At the subnational level, some cities, states, businesses, and other organisations are taking action. Recent analysis suggests that if recorded and quantified non-state and subnational targets were fully implemented, these measures could come within striking distance of the US Paris Agreement commitment, resulting in emissions that are 17–24% below 2005 levels in 2025 (incl. LULUCF). In total, 22 states, 550 cities, and 900 companies with operations in the US have made climate commitments, and all 50 states have some type of policy that could bring about emissions reductions.
Even with the Trump Administration’s steps to roll back federal climate policy, the CAT’s emissions projections for 2030 are 2–3% lower than they were in 2018, mainly because the projected share of gas and renewables in electricity generation has increased, and the projected share of coal has decreased. The US is within striking distance of the upper end of its 2020 target, with emissions projections for 2020 just 1–2% higher than the target.
Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, which mandates a three-year notice period, the US Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) legally remains in place at least until 2020, although the US intends to withdraw it at that time unless it has found suitable terms for reengagement, and the Trump Administration has already stopped implementation.
On the CAT rating scale, the US NDC would fall into the “Insufficient” category. This means that it is not yet consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C, let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger 1.5°C limit, unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort. It is also at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution for the US.
To meet its NDC target, the United States would have had to implement the Clean Power Plan and the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan, or equivalent measures. Current US policies are only projected to reduce emissions to 13 to 15% below 2005 levels by 2025.
Projected emissions in 2030 are lower than the CAT projected in 2018, driven by increased gas and renewables and decreased coal in electricity generation. The EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2019 (AEO) projects 8% lower emissions from electricity generation as compared to the 2018 outlook (reference case), despite increased generation overall, with increased electricity generation from gas and renewables, and decreased generation from coal:
- Coal is projected to account for 22% of generation in 2030 (down from the 26% projected in 2018),
- gas for 38% (compared to 34% projected in 2018), and
- renewables for 24% (compared to 23% projected in 2018),
- nuclear makes up the rest.
Over the same time period, the share of renewables has increased. US government projections expect renewables to reach 24% in 2030 and 31% in 2050. Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects much higher renewables shares of 55% in 2050. On a global level, Paris Agreement compatibility requires a completely decarbonised electricity sector by 2050.
- Utility scale solar PV installations were up 10% in the US in the first half of 2018 from the first half of 2017 (Jan-Jun); coal plant retirements doubled.
- Onshore wind installations were down 44% from the first half of 2017.
- At the subnational level, 29 states have mandatory renewable portfolio standards, and nine have voluntary renewable energy targets.
- Five US cities have already achieved their goals of 100% renewable energy.
1 | This is the upper end of CAT’s estimate of the impact on annual emissions in 2030 of rolling back: the Clean Power Plan (already excluded from the CAT current policies scenario) (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2018a), CAFE standards for light duty vehicles (based on CAT calculations), methane standards for oil and gas production (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016), and HFC regulations under the Significant New Alternatives Policy programme (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2015). The lower bound of the estimate is 270 MtCO2e/yr in 2030. For more information click here.