In 101 months, the United States will have either fulfilled or failed to fulfill President Biden’s most important climate promise. Right now, it is seriously falling short, and with each passing month, it becomes more difficult to succeed until, at some point — perhaps very soon — it becomes virtually impossible. That is true for the United States, but it is also true for the planet, as nearly 200 nations work to address climate change on a rapidly approaching deadline.
This is critical context for the late-week announcement by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WVa.) that, after months of negotiations with his Democratic colleagues, he is refusing to support new climate policies. Manchin’s stated hesitation is due to raging inflation, which is a serious concern. But there is always a reason to postpone action, and time is not on our side when it comes to climate change.
The Biden administration’s climate policy is centered on a promise made in 2021 to reduce U.S. emissions by 50 to 52 percent by the end of 2030 — 101 months from this August — compared to 2005 levels. Achieving this goal would necessitate a significant reshuffling of the American economy, including millions of new electric cars on the road, transformations of key industries to rely more on renewable energy, and probably millions of new jobs.
The Senate climate legislation would have accelerated that transition by increasing tax credits for renewable energy and electric vehicles, among other energy-related incentives and provisions.
Moving quickly is required to stay on track with the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which nations agreed to take significant steps to avoid the levels of global warming associated with severe climate impact. To avoid those outcomes, scientists generally agree that emissions must be cut in half by 2030.
In many ways, believing we have until 2030 to cut emissions to the target exaggerates the amount of time we have. As time passes, the amount of emissions that must be reduced grows in the remaining months. It’s like a ship taking on water: if you wait too long to start baling, you have to bale faster and faster, and eventually you won’t be able to reach shore.
The Biden goal was already a long shot. So far, the US has only reduced emissions by a fraction of what the administration intends. According to official national figures, emissions in 2005 totaled 6.6 billion tons of greenhouse gases, and emissions in 2019 and 2020 totaled 5.8 and 5.2 billion tons, respectively.
Thus, current cuts from 2005 levels amount to either 12 or 21%, depending on whether emissions figures for 2020 are used (which represent the most recent official numbers). That’s a real problem because emissions fell in 2020 due to coronavirus-related shutdowns, but they’re now rising — and no one expects that blip to have much of an impact on the long-term trend.
Setting aside the pandemic and focusing on what was accomplished through 2019, the Biden administration would still need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.5 billion tons or so in just over eight years. That is equivalent to the emissions of two Japans or one India. Analysts say it was at least possible due to a combination of current momentum and policy.
The current breakdown in negotiations with Manchin “makes it harder, and it makes any additional executive branch actions that much more critical.” “The stakes have risen significantly,” said John Larsen, a Rhodium partner.
Several studies have suggested that policies like the Senate legislation could have resulted in an additional billion tons of annual emissions reductions in the United States.
Warming of two degrees Celsius is severe, and 1.5 degrees is also bad — but noticeably less so in some ways. Scientists believe that in a 1.5-degree world, small islands would have more time to adapt to sea level rise. Coral reefs would be severely damaged, but they might still exist in some areas. And the Arctic would still have summer sea ice in most or all years, avoiding one of the most dangerous feedbacks that could amplify climate change.