The Biden administration this week is expected to unveil its greenhouse gas emissions target for 2030 under the Paris Agreement, providing new clues as to how it plans to tackle climate change over the next decade.
The target, likely to be announced Thursday alongside an international climate summit at the White House, will set interim goalposts that in turn will guide domestic emissions policy for the coming years. The figure will also send a signal to international partners about the level of U.S. commitment to fighting climate change.
Experts and advocates say they’re expecting the administration to choose a reduction target, officially known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC), that is ambitious but realistic.
“The NDC will be a number that reflects both where we need to be from a science-based perspective and where we think we can get based on policies and measures and regulations and legislation and state and local action and action from businesses and others,” said Aimee Barnes, who has worked on climate change policy for the governments of California, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.
When it set goals for 2025 under the Paris Agreement, the Obama administration said it would aim to reduce U.S. emissions by between 26 percent and 28 percent compared to 2005 levels.
Nathan Hultman, who worked on the NDC during the Obama administration, said coming up with the target involves a two-step process of figuring out what policies can be implemented and calculating what the impact of those policies will be.
“We come up with a policy strategy and then you run the numbers,” said Hultman, who is now a professor at the University of Maryland.
He said much more is possible now on the mitigation front than in the Obama years, due to several factors: the cost of clean energy technology has dropped; cities, states and companies have started taking “increasingly ambitious action” on climate; and public awareness and support for climate action has increased.
“It’s like a Venn diagram, there’s ... a sweet spot where those two goals actually can both be met: being both ambitious and ... achievable,” he said.
A number of environmental groups, businesses and European leaders already have a target in mind: They want the U.S. to commit to cutting its emissions to 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.
“A Nationally Determined Contribution that cuts emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030 in this country will deliver substantial equity, public health and economic benefits that align with the administration’s build back better priorities and post-pandemic goals,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told reporters Monday during a press call.
Brune said his group has had “many” conversations with administration officials over the past several weeks, and that he expects they will commit to cutting at least 50 percent of U.S. emissions by 2030.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
In terms of policies to get there, Brune called for investing in clean energy, resilient infrastructure, electric vehicles and a reliable electric grid.
On the same press call, Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said actions like limiting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution from coal and gas power plants and regulating methane emissions from oil and gas fields can contribute to the 50 percent reduction.
However, not all environmental groups are seeking the same reduction rate.
Progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth are endorsing a report that calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent.
That means Biden risks angering many in the progressive wing of the party if his administration sets climate goals they consider insufficient.
Regardless of the target figure, the announcement of its NDC will signal to international partners the Biden administration’s level of commitment to combating climate change over the next several years.
“The international community and our partners abroad will be watching,” said Barnes, who now runs a climate and energy consulting firm. “It’s going to be a process of being able to prove that our leadership is not just in word, but also in action.”
Hultman said the eyes of the international community are a big reason why the target has to be achievable.
“There would certainly be very high skepticism if any country comes out with a target that seems absolutely unrealistic,” he said.