Politics Determine Climate Progress

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his American Jobs Plan near the Calcasieu River Bridge in Lake Charles, Louisiana, U.S., May 6, 2021.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


Barriers to achieving US climate goals are more political than technical

Samantha GrossMonday, May 10, 2021PLANETPOLICY

On Earth Day, April 22, President Joe Biden hosted a global summit on climate change to emphasize that the United States is back in the game on climate policy and to encourage greater climate ambition among other countries. Just over 100 days into his administration, Biden has largely put his cards on the table in terms of his climate goals and his plans to reach them. The big question is whether he will be able to overcome stiff political challenges on one of his core issues.


A little background on the Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is helpful here. It has a “bring your own goals” structure. Each member country makes a pledge of emissions reductions that it will deliver, called a nationally determined contribution (NDC). The sum of these pledges is the “meat” of the agreement. Pledges submitted in advance of the 2015 agreement were not sufficient to achieve its overall goal — limiting global average temperature rise to less than 2°C, ideally to less than 1.5°C. However, the agreement requires NDC updates every five years with the idea that they will become more ambitious over time, driven by technology improvements and cost reductions, along with peer pressure. Those updated, ideally more ambitious, NDCs are due before the COP26 conference in early November this year.

Samantha Gross, Fellow, Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate, The Brookings Institution

Samantha Gross

Director – Energy Security and Climate Initiative 

Fellow – Foreign PolicyEnergy Security and Climate Initiative

President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, but Biden rejoined the agreement on his first day in office. Since Biden’s election and inauguration, the new U.S. NDC has been a hot topic of discussion among climate experts and concerned citizens worldwide. And it is finally here, issued on April 21 in advance of the Earth Day Climate Summit. Announcing the NDC provided the Biden administration with an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to climate action, to domestic voters and the wider world.

In the months since the election, environmentalists have generally agreed that the U.S. NDC needed to be at least a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 (from a base year of 2005, the peak year for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions). They got their wish — the NDC pledges 50% to 52% reductions from 2005, which totals out to reductions of 39% to 45% from 2020 emissions. But the question I’ve been asking myself is, how? Nine years is a short time for such a profound transformation.

The NDC itself doesn’t have a lot to say about the policies that will be used to achieve reductions, instead describing the sectors with significant emissions and potential ways of abating them. This is normal — the European Union submitted its own NDC in December 2020, but the implementation plan is still under consideration and expected to be issued in June. (The U.S. NDC is less ambitious than the EU’s, which promises similar percent emissions reductions, but from the smaller baseline of 1990.)

Several studies, including from the University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Asia Policy Institute and Climate Analytics, describe how the U.S. could achieve the level of reductions pledged in the NDC. The plans describe different combinations of policy mechanisms, but demonstrate that the pledged reduction is achievable — albeit very challenging.

Unlike in the European Union, a nationwide price on carbon is off the table for now. A carbon price, through a tax or a cap and trade program, would require legislation from Congress. And such legislation has no chance of passing the current Congress. Without a price on carbon, sector-specific policies must carry the burden of reducing emissions.


For the most part, the Biden administration has already proposed the programs it plans to use to achieve the emissions reductions pledged in the U.S. NDC. The American Jobs Plan that the White House issued on March 31 is the closest thing to a “climate bill” we’re likely to see before the 2022 midterm elections. It contains a number of elements that would contribute to significant emissions reductions. Additional reductions are likely to come from programs that the administration can implement on its own, without Congress.

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