Net zero targets
We evaluate the net zero target as: Average.
The Biden Administration submitted the US long-term strategy to the UNFCCC in November 2021 (U.S. Department of State, 2021), officially committing the US to net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. The net zero target covers all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, makes transparent assumptions on CO2 removal by land-based and technology-based solutions, and specifies several key components for comprehensive planning.
The US government has several avenues to improve the scope, target architecture and transparency of its net zero target. The US government could include international aviation and shipping to its target coverage, and explicitly commit to reach net zero emissions within its own borders without any use of international offsets. Furthermore, the target itself could be enshrined in law in combination with adopting a legally-binding review, revision, and reporting mechanism. The US government further ought to explain why its net zero target is a fair contribution to the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, and transparently address any existing gap between its net zero target and what would be a fair target.
CAT analysis of net zero target
Ten key elements
- Target year – The US government is committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest (U.S. Department of State, 2021).
- Emissions coverage – The US net zero target includes all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (U.S. Department of State, 2021).
- International aviation and shipping – The US government deliberately excludes international aviation and shipping from its net zero target’s coverage (U.S. Department of State, 2021).
- Reductions or removals outside of own borders – The US government reserves its rights to use international market mechanisms toward achievement of this net-zero goal (U.S. Department of State, 2021), even if it currently does not expect to do so.
- Legal status – The US government submitted its updated long-term strategy (LTS) including its net zero announcement to the UNFCCC in November 2021 (U.S. Department of State, 2021). The net zero target has not yet been enshrined in law as of October 2023.
- Separate reduction & removal targets – The US government does not provide separate emission reduction and removal targets. However, the US provides projections on its use of direct air capture (DAC) and LULUCF in its LTS.
- Review process – The LTS specifies that progress toward the net zero target will be regularly assessed without providing further specific information on the envisioned processes. The government has indicated that it may update the LTS in the future, but has not committed to any legally-binding revision process.
- Carbon dioxide removal – The US government provides transparent assumptions and pathways on both natural sinks and technology-based CDR towards 2050 (U.S. Department of State, 2021). Land‑based sinks reach roughly 600–1,400 MtCO2e in 2050, while technology-based CDR reaches roughly 300–500 MtCO2e in 2050. On the latter, no detailed information is provided on storage capacities for captured carbon emissions, nor the combination of technologies envisioned to increase this sink.
- Comprehensive planning – The updated LTS presents multiple pathways and a set of transparent assumptions to reach net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest (U.S. Department of State, 2021). The government has outlined multiple measures and actions across different sectors, most prominently to fully decarbonise domestic electricity supply by 2035 (assuming a substantial increase of electricity generation capacity using fossil fuels equipped with CCS in 2050). Other intermediate targets in the transport sector, for example, are to (1) increase the share of new zero-emissions light-duty cars sold in 2030 to 50% of total sales and to (2) produce 3 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act includes considerable provisions to advance and deploy renewable energy technologies, accelerate LDV electrification and promote sustainable aviation fuel production to meet such outlined targets.
The US government further announced that it would publish a ‘U.S. National Climate Strategy (NCS)’ alongside its LTS, which was meant to quantify the immediate, concrete policies and action needed to put the US on track to meet its 2030 NDC target. Two years later, however, this strategy has still not been made public.
The US government claims that the NDC target is fully aligned with pathways reaching net zero target. CAT estimates that to achieve the net zero target, total GHG emissions must continue decreasing by 5%–10% annually from NDC levels in 2030 until 2050, excl. LULUCF. The minimum bound of the range (i.e., 5% annual reduction) is consistent with the emissions reduction needed from today’s levels to meet the upper end of the NDC target by 2030.
- Clarity on fairness of target – The US government makes no reference to fairness or equity in the context of its net zero target.
The Climate Action Tracker has defined the following good practice for all ten key elements of net zero targets. Countries can refer to this good practice to design or enhance their net zero targets.