To meet America’s Paris pledge, climate policy Avengers must assemble
By Dana Nuccitelli
To meet our share of greenhouse gas emissions cuts as part of the Paris target to limit global warming to well below 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, the United States has committed to cutting emissions by 50–52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Thanks to increasingly clean electricity generation, America has already made some progress toward this goal, currently sitting at about 15–20% below 2005 levels, but that still leaves a long way to go without a lot of time left to clean up our act.
That’s why the budget reconciliation package currently under consideration by Congress is so critically important. According to a new analysis from Resources from the Future (RFF), an independent and nonprofit research institution, simply continuing current climate policies would leave the U.S. more than halfway short of its Paris contribution, at just 23% below 2005 emissions levels in 2030. RFF and Rhodium Group, another independent research organization, both analyzed how close some of the major climate policies currently under consideration by Congress would bring the U.S. to its Paris pledge.
The evaluated policies
Both groups evaluated the clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits and incentives as well as the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) included in the outlined legislation. The CEPP as currently drafted by the House Committee on Energy & Commerce (the Senate has yet to weigh in) would offer financial grants to utilities that increase their annual share of clean electricity by at least 4% and charge fines to those who miss that goal.
Rhodium’s analysis also incorporated the proposed fee on methane pollution from oil and gas operations, as well as funding for agricultural and forestry programs that achieve carbon removal through soil conservation and reforestation.
In addition to tax incentives and the CEPP, RFF also evaluated the carbon fee under consideration by the Senate Finance Committee in its analysis. The committee’s proposed carbon price would begin at $15 per ton of carbon dioxide generated from burning fossil fuels and rise at an unspecified rate. RFF mainly focused on a scenario in which the carbon price rises slowly at first (by $1 per ton 2024 then $2 in 2025, $3 in 2026, $4 in 2027, then $5 in 2028) before increasing by $10 per ton per year starting in 2029, at that point mirroring annual carbon price increase in the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. In a secondary scenario, RFF considered a carbon price starting at $15 per ton in 2023 and rising slowly at 5% per year.
What did they find?
The key finding in both the RFF and Rhodium analyses is that these key policies can achieve most of America’s pledged emissions cuts, but none are sufficient on their own. According to Rhodium’s analysis, the clean technology tax credits, CEPP, methane fee, and agriculture and forestry carbon removal funding will curb US greenhouse gas emissions to about 39% below 2005 levels by 2030.
RFF’s analysis is a bit more optimistic, estimating that the tax credits and CEPP alone could achieve 39% emissions cuts, as could the slower-rising carbon fee considered by the group. The more ambitious carbon fee would cut emissions by about 44% below 2005 levels by 2030, if gasoline were exempted. The emissions cut would improve to 45% if gasoline were subject to the carbon price. A separate analysis released by Senate Majority Leader Schumer’s office estimated that the measures included in the bipartisan and reconciliation packages so far (including a methane fee but not a carbon price) would achieve 45% emissions cuts by 2030:
TODAY, @SenSchumer published a letter looking at the combined impact of the reconciliation & infrastructure bills on climate change. The bottom line: these investments can reduce GHG emissions to 45% below 2005 levels by 2030! Here's a quick look at HOW we get there (🧵): pic.twitter.com/S6RkX7LrHL
— CAP Energy Policy (@CAPenergypolicy) August 25, 2021
The common thread among all these analyses is that none meets America’s Paris commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50–52% by 2030.
But there’s good news! RFF also evaluated a scenario in which the final packages include all three: clean technology tax incentives, a CEPP, and a carbon pollution price. In that case, using the more ambitious of its two carbon pricing scenarios, RFF found that the U.S. would achieve 50% emissions cuts by 2030 even if gasoline is exempted from carbon pricing, or 52% if it’s included. Based on this analysis, which doesn’t include other measures like a methane fee, America would meet its newly strengthened Paris pledge.
No such thing as ‘too much climate policy’
The lesson here is that meeting America’s climate commitments is a major challenge, and the more climate policies we implement, the better our chances of achieving those goals. Tax credits and a CEPP would make a big dent by decarbonizing the electricity sector and helping the transition toward electric vehicles, but as the RFF analysis found, a carbon fee would speed up that process by incentivizing immediate emissions cuts while the CEPP ramps up. RFF also found that a carbon fee would lead to significantly reduced carbon emissions in other key sectors, especially from industry and buildings.
In short, these policies are complementary, and the more we implement, the more we reduce the risks and consequences of extreme climate change damages. When it comes to climate policies, there is no such thing as “too much.” Whatever Congress can pass — clean technology tax incentives, funding for agricultural and forestry carbon sequestration, funding for better public transit, a CEPP, prices on methane and carbon, etc. — will improve our chances to meet the Paris targets. As in the final scene of “Avengers: Endgame,” we need every climate ally to win the day.
To paraphrase Captain America: Climate Avengers, assemble!
Dana Nuccitelli is an environmental scientist and climate journalist with a Master’s Degree in physics. He has written about climate change since 2010 for Skeptical Science, for The Guardian from 2013 to 2018, and since 2018 for Yale Climate Connections. In 2015 he published the book “Climatology versus Pseudoscience”, and he has also authored ten peer-reviewed climate studies, including a 2013 paper that found a 97% consensus among peer-reviewed climate science research that humans are the primary cause of global warming.