By Marianne Lavelle
The United States is back in the Paris climate accord, but the depth of its commitment will become clear only in the next two weeks, when President Joe Biden unveils the details of the nation’s pledge for reducing greenhouse gas pollution.
President Barack Obama pledged that the United States would cut emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025, a goal the nation is not quite on track to meet. But environmental advocates are pushing for Biden to set a goal of at least a 50 percent cut in U.S. emissions by 2030, based on a slew of recent studies, including research by the United Nations and the National Academies of Science, showing that a 50 percent target is both necessary and achievable. On Tuesday, a coalition of hundreds of businesses, including Walmart, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon and Unilever, sent a letter to the White House, joining in the call for a 50 percent goal.
Only by doubling the original U.S. commitment under the Paris accord, they argue in the letter, will the world’s largest economy and historic contributor to carbon pollution be in a position to persuade other nations to join in the action necessary to hold global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
But to slash greenhouse gas emissions throughout the U.S. economy by 50 percent, the reduction from electric power plants will have to be much greater, around 80 percent by 2030, according to most analyses. That would put the nation in a better position to meet Biden’s goal of eliminating 100 percent of carbon emissions from electric power by 2035.
Without a major policy push, however, climate progress in the U.S. power sector is on track to stall out, with coal and natural gas continuing to battle for market shares in the years to come, forecasters say. That’s because the nation’s power system is designed for centralized fossil fuel power, not renewable energy, and the switch to cleaner power entails costs like new distribution lines, large-scale batteries and other storage options. Coal and natural gas can continue to win out in the competition with wind and solar as long as the market continues to ignore the potential expense of climate disruption or the health impact of pollution.
“Low carbon technologies face an uneven playing field in the United States due to competition from fossil fuel sources that do not pay for the costs that their emissions impose on society,” wrote Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, in his group’s roadmap for decarbonizing the United States.
Greenstone, former chief economist in the Obama White House, argued that putting a price on carbon—either through a tax or a cap on emissions—would be the most cost-efficient way to level the playing field for clean energy. But acknowledging the difficult politics of pricing carbon, he and his team laid out a proposal for a national Clean Energy Standard, an idea that Biden already has embraced in his infrastructure plan. Such a standard would be similar to the Renewable Portfolio Standards that are already in place in 37 states, mandating that utilities increase energy from clean sources over time.