Biden's Paris Agreement commitment will be tough on Americans — and ineffective

Biden's Paris Agreement commitment will be tough on Americans — and ineffective
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In April, President BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE announced that the United States will commit to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the next eight years to about 50 percent of what they were in 2005. This commitment is formalized as America’s nationally determined contribution (NDC), which is a public declaration required of the Paris Agreement signatory nations. But have the American people had a chance to see what this plan means for them? 

First, looking at data from the 2021 Annual Energy Outlook from the Department of Energy, we would need to increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road from 0.3 percent to 50 percent. This means nearly every new car and light-duty truck sold in the next eight years would have to be electric, as opposed to an internal combustion engine. We don’t have access to the raw materials to build so many batteries and our power grids are insufficient to charge all these vehicles. Not to mention that EVs are unaffordable and lack the range to be practical for many Americans.  

Second, to meet the NDC, half of all residential buildings and half of all commercial buildings that are currently heated with natural gas, heating oil and propane would need to be converted to electric heat. The commercial side of this requirement alone amounts to 1.4 million buildings. In the northern parts of the country, forced air heat, even from the newest air source heat pumps, is insufficient to reliably heat a house. And again, this would only add strain to the power grids — along with the 100 million plus new EVs — as these grids are forced to jettison their reliance on coal. 


Third, all power generation from coal would need to be shut down. Currently, the U.S. only generates about 19.3 percent of its electricity from coal, but some areas of the U.S. rely more heavily on coal than others. For example, there are periods when West Virginia, Minnesota and Pennsylvania generate half of their electricity by burning coal. 

Fourth, the NDC would require the U.S. to transition 80 percent of its electricity generation to zero-emitting renewables. For comparison, renewables including hydropower currently make up 17 percent of all electricity generated in the United States. This kind of transition is impossible to make in the next eight years, all while maintaining Americans’ current standard of living. It is impossible to construct a single nuclear power plant or large hydroelectric dam on time to comply with this commitment.

These goals cannot possibly be met without major sacrifices for Americans. Some might argue that sacrifices should be made to help the climate. However, this NDC still would make no noticeable impact on global GHG emissions because the real problem comes from countries such as China, Russia and India. According to the U.N. Emissions Gap Report, the U.S. has been decreasing its GHG emissions per capita for two decades — even without the Paris Agreement — while those three major economies are still increasing theirs. 

The earth’s climate doesn’t care which country is emitting GHGs. While the United States has been closing coal power plants and transitioning to cleaner natural gas, China is building more coal power plants. In 2020, China brought on line 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power and currently has another 247 gigawatts of coal power under development. China has pledged to reach peak emissions by 2030 (the same year the U.S. has committed to cutting its emissions by half) and to achieve “net zero” by 2060. But China has yet to issue an NDC, publicly outlining and committing to any targets. In fact, it seems clear that China has no intention of changing its emissions behavior at all. A top Chinese diplomat recently admitted in an interview that it is unrealistic to expect that China will do anything more to reduce its GHG emissions. 

It is understandable that countries with large amounts of poverty, such as China and India, want to take advantage of their natural resources to increase the standard of living for their people. But for the sake of the planet, the United States would do better using considerable resources to help these countries reduce their dependence on coal, rather setting unattainable goals at home. For example, instead of using its money to subsidize or mandate the consumption of electric vehicles for Americans — a move that would barely impact global GHG emissions — the U.S. could facilitate the export of plentiful American natural gas to China and India to help reduce their dependence on coal.  

The planet would be better served by truly global cooperative efforts because the current American plan is impossible, unrealistic and insufficient.

Ellen R. Wald is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, and president of Transversal Consulting, a global energy and geopolitics consultancy. She is the author of “Saudi, Inc.,” a history of Aramco and how the Saudi royal family controls this multitrillion-dollar enterprise. Follow her on Twitter @EnergzdEconomy.