Where Obama’s Emissions Plans May Fall Short


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President Barack Obama made his 2025 emission goals known on Tuesday with a State Department release to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The announced goal came to a 26% to 28% cut in emission rates between 2005 and 2025 with “best efforts to reduce by 28%.” The White House release focused on two things in particular: how the president’s policies and plans for renewable energy would contribute to these emission reductions, and on how the United States compares to other emitters in greenhouse gases.

The plan is set, and President Obama has been more of an environmental proponent than many of his fellow politicians in Washington, despite criticism from both sides. However, the question remains as to whether or not his plan is “enough.” Enough to curtail the effects of global warming before we reach a global tipping point, enough to improve things like air quality at home, enough to guarantee cooperation at home, and enough to satisfy criticism that he hasn’t pushed America far enough. The answer on many counts, unfortunately, is no.

Before we look at why America’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution fell short in certain areas, lets see what promises it contains. The release states that the carbon pollution reduction target will be almost doubled “from 1.2 percent per year on average during the 2005-2020 period to 2.3-2.8 percent per year on average between 2020 and 2025.” China’s plan calls for a peak to be reached by 2030, with a 20% improvement on non-fossil fuel use in that same time period. The EU is looking for a 40% emission cut by 2030, and Mexico has committed to a peak in greenhouse gas emission by 2026. Norway and Switzerland have also both put out positive additions in their commitment to pollution cuts. So where does the plan fall short? It outlines goals for future fuel efficient larger vehicles, cutting carbon pollution by 3 billion metric tons, reducing power plant emissions by 30% by 2030, and the goal of reducing industrial greenhouse gases both at home and globally via the Significant New Alternatives Policy program (SNAP). All laudable efforts, but when stacked against international contribution, America’s UN Intended Nationally Determined Contributions failed to merit leadership status amongst other countries, according to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT).

The CAT rates the U.S. near the lower end of “medium,” which it defines as “in the least stringent part of the 2ºC range, and if all governments adopted a medium position, warming would likely exceed 2ºC.” The ranking does largely take into account only 2020 through 2030, rather than including current and past years (as the U.S. does in its percentage cut from 2005). International leaders, or “Role Models” include both Bhutan and the Maldives.

Part of the goal of cutting emissions across global communities was to help prevent global warming from reaching a threshold defined by a two-degree temperature increase. At this point, that’s a goal many — though not all — agree isn’t possible. “The 2-degree target is a great idea,” Granger Morgan, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon told NBC. “But we have been so slow in doing anything much about controlling emissions that the accumulative effects are building up on us and … I just do not see the political will to limit emissions to the degree that will be needed to stay below 2 degrees,” he said.

This doesn’t mean efforts shouldn’t be made, said Morgan, because mitigating effects can still be accomplished. Some might argue that recent commitments prove countries are prepared to work together toward that common goal. However there are areas where the U.S. is still stolidly failing to live up to certain standards; for example enacting cap-and-trade legislation on carbon emissions or a carbon tax, which has been one one of the biggest sticking points with environmentalists and other countries.

On the other hand, even if cuts aren’t where they need to be across the board, there has been some evidence to support the idea that emission cuts can take place without sacrificing economic health and viability. Obama spoke on the need to find the right balance between immediate and future interests, saying “People don’t like gas prices going up. They don’t like electricity prices going up. And we ignore those very real and legitimate concerns at our peril.” Even so, he passed the Clean Air Act, which was ruled in favor of by the Supreme Court, and has made it clear that there is a way to work around the economy while protecting the future of America and the entire global community. “We’ve got to shape our strategies to address the very real and legitimate concerns of working families,” he said.

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