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What is the U.S. Commitment in Paris?

Update 6/2017: The Paris Climate Agreement: What Trump’s Decision to Leave Means

The United States has joined 185 countries in promising to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, develop other ways to mitigate the impacts and to make communities more resilient to climate change. These proposals, called the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” have been submitted to the United Nations prior to 12 days of negotiations going on now in Paris.

US emissions chart

At the opening of the talks Monday, President Obama told the gathering, “I’ve come here personally as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second largest emitter [of greenhouse gases] to say that the United States not only recognizes its role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”

So what exactly is the United States proposing to do?

The United States has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level in 2025, and to make “best efforts” to reduce emissions by 28 percent. That would include curbs on carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride, all of which contribute to global warming.

How will we do that? The United States already is taking measures that will help reduce emissions. The nation can continue that effort by becoming more efficient in how we use energy in everything from buildings and cars to washing machines and cell phones; using a greater portion of alternative energies like solar and wind over fossil fuels; and developing better technologies for energy storage, and for the capture, storage and recycling of carbon.

All of that could take place through a combination of laws, regulations and incentives—Congress and the courts willing. That includes regulations under the Clean Air Act that would force electric power plants to reduce their carbon emissions; and grants and tax incentives to propel the development of more alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.

The power sector now accounts for 31 percent of U.S. emissions. Efforts to upgrade the electricity grid to better accommodate intermittent sources like solar and wind would help, as would development of better energy storage technologies.

The efforts to date have put the U.S. on a path to reduce emissions 17 percent below the 2005 level by 2020. To reach the new 2025 goal, the nation will have to double the pace.

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector. Source: EPA
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector. Source: EPA

Here’s a look at key ways we’re cutting emissions:

Fuel economy standards: Transportation accounts for about 27 percent of U.S. emissions. The government has been setting “corporate average fuel economy” standards since 1975—requiring automakers to meet an average miles-per-gallon standard for their products (with exceptions), or pay a penalty. The U.S. has adopted new standards for light-duty vehicles produced between 2012 and 2025, and for heavy duty vehicles for 2014-2018. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency are preparing to set new standards for heavy-duty vehicles post 2018.

Buildings and appliances: The Department of Energy is preparing measures to curb emissions by setting energy conservation standards for appliances and other types of equipment, and building code standards for commercial and residential buildings. Many of these standards already exist; they are likely to become stronger.

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by type. Source: EPA
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by type. Source: EPA

Power plants: 31 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of electricity, most of which relies on fossil fuels, mostly natural gas and coal. The Clean Power Plan established by the EPA under the Clean Air Act sets goals for each state to cut carbon pollution, and allows states to come up with their own plans to meet those goals. The plan is likely to greatly reduce reliance on coal, which is the most polluting fuel. The plan has been challenged in Congress and the courts.

Other greenhouse gases: The EPA has pushed for other ways to reduce emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride. The EPA is developing standards to address methane emissions from landfills and the oil and gas sector.

Financial and aid commitments: The U.S. already has pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, an international pool of funding intended to help countries adopt less-polluting energy sources and cut emissions. This week, Secretary of State John Kerry told the climate gathering that the United States also will double its commitment to $861 million in grant-based investments to help developing nations find ways to adapt to climate change. To what extent the U.S. Congress will go along with that remains to be seen.

To see the U.S. commitment, visit this site; and for an analysis, take a look at this blog post at the World Resources Institute site.

For a good overview of what different nations are saying they will do, try this site.

And what about other countries? Here are examples from key players:

The European Union: Similar to the United States, the EU has pledged to reduce emissions. They have committed to a target of at least 40 percent domestic emissions reductions below 1990 by 2030. The EU emphasizes the importance of transparency of accounting and reporting of emissions in quantitative assessments. The EU proposal does not specifically mention how the member countries plan to accomplish the goal.

There are challenges unique to each country in the EU. France is heavily dependent on nuclear energy, which should give them a boost. Germany on the other hand has been moving away from nuclear energy, and is committed to broadening its renewable energy portfolio, but has been hampered by higher energy prices.

China: China is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. And, the country’s proposal includes measure aimed at climate change mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, capacity building and transparency of action and support. The country says it will reduce CO2 emissions per unit of GDP—known as carbon intensity—by 60 to 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. That means its energy consumption will continue to grow, but they plan to use it more efficiently, before they hope to peak energy use in 2030. China also plans to increase forest carbon stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels by 2030. In other words, they will plant a lot of trees that can soak up carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating some of the added energy they will be using.

According to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, “increasing forest carbon stocks by 4.5 billion cubic meters implies an increase in forest cover of 50-100 million hectares (124-247 million acres) of forest, or about two to four times the size of the United Kingdom. This amount of forest would create a roughly 1-gigaton carbon sink, equivalent to stopping tropical deforestation for almost a full year, or taking 770 million cars off the road.”

India: India is particularly interesting to look at because of its growing population. As a developing nation, India is concerned with how it can develop while lowering the emissions intensity—the amount of emissions per capital or per unit of production. They hope to accomplish decreased emissions with financial help from developed nations, who have been responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions over the past 150 years.

India hopes to reduce emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35 percent by 2030, and achieve 40 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030 with the help of transfer technology and low-cost international financing from the Green Climate Fund. That fund was set up by the UN to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Jennifer Sweeney, an intern at The Earth Institute, contributed research and writing for this post.


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Pauline V Williams
Pauline V Williams
6 years ago

I can still walk or bike. I can still plant trees. I can still increase insulation. I can still use solar power. What would happen if we met our neighbors and worked together instead of sitting in isolation with our energy burning phones and computers.
Plant trees along every mile of interstates and cloverleafs. Every citizen plants five trees a year.
Buy clean organic groceries.

Bill Norman
Bill Norman
6 years ago

The U.S. is 16%. It doesn’t matter what we do. If we went to zero the output of carbon would be back to the same level in 10 years. The planet will have to deal with it unless we want to invade china.

Ray Worthen
Ray Worthen
6 years ago

As the late David MacKay said, “if we all do a little, very little will get done.” Just getting to the 28% reduction agreement was going to be extremely difficult to meet. US CO2 emissions break out like this; 33.4% comes from Transportation, 27% from Industrial production, 21% from residential, 18% from commercial, and 3.2% from non-energy sources. Imagine 1/2 of all homes replacing their existing furnaces, water heaters, air conditioners, ovens, and stoves with non carbon alternatives in 9 years. Plus 1/2 of all residential electrical needs converted to non-carbon sources as well. – even then – the effect would be a reduction of only 3.7%. The math looks like this. 33.4 + 27 +( .5)*21 + 18 + 3.2 = 92.1% or about an 8% reduction. What is required is a 28% reduction at every source or near complete replacement of one source. It looks like expecting to win this battle without large government action is like expecting to win WWII with a few volunteers and deer rifles.

s. mader
s. mader
6 years ago

US commitments for this accord are largely political and financial and their impact on the climate is totally hypothetical. The US commitment to send money outside its borders to countries to utilize is DEFINATELY not in the interest of the tax payers who provide these funds. The only thing that is really measurable about the Paris Accord is the economic compromise of American vs. it’s competitor nations.
The absolutist positions of the left are a reflection of the same “sour grapes” attitude they have to anything off their primary agenda. The absolutist positions from outside governments are self serving as they are wanting American dollars infusing these projects. Lets wake up and be responsible. To ahead and let the folks like Bloomberg and other rich, far left control freaks put their private dollars into this. No problem.

William Simonson
William Simonson
6 years ago

Expecting the government to do anything meaningful in today’s polarized political environment is like setting a place at the table on Easter and expecting the Easter Bunny to show up.

If you own a home or condo, know the carbon footprint and develop a plan to reduce it.

Run washing machines, cloths dryers, and dishwashers only after 7:00 PM or on weekends. Have an electric water heater? Shower at night. Use only LED light fixtures and LED bulbs. Get a hot water heater with extra insulation and put a jacket over it. Keep the furnace air filter clean. Install triple glazed windows. I know, sounds expensive. What’s more important, a new Toyota Titan pick-up and a vacation or the environment?

Drive a car that uses less fuel. Purchase a car that is US assembled with US made engine and transmission. Reduce ocean freighter pollution by minimizing imported products. Buy US assembled appliances. Take vacations in the US and eliminate airliner emissions.

Americans have to stop whining and make a personal contribution to improving the environment. By decreasing peak demand and increasing off-peak demand, power plants will be more efficiently with less throttling up and down to meet big demand variations. Being more efficient translates to lower CO2 emissions.

Mostly, Americans need to assume some personal responsibility for their environment.

T. Van
T. Van
6 years ago

If we all would just reduce our carbon footprint to that of Al Gore, problem solved!!