What will it take for the U.S. to meet its climate targets?

In November 2014, the United States and China announced bold new targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions. As climate scientist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert notes over at Slate, China's agreement to peak its greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030 is a big deal.

He's right, of course, to focus on policy targets for the world's largest emitter. But what about #2? Just as China's emissions trajectory shapes the global carbon budget, policy in the United States shapes the politics of international climate negotiations. That the two biggest emitters put aside their differences to make a joint announcement as countries gear up for the UNFCCC meeting in Paris this coming December is nothing short of great news. 

Measuring progress

The joint announcement builds on the U.S. target under the Copenhagen accord to reduce emissions "in the range of 17%" below their peak 2005 levels by the year 2020. Now the U.S. has put forward a deeper target: reducing emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by the year 2025. 

Despite the positive headlines, many are wondering how the U.S. will meet these new goals. In the absence of comprehensive climate legislation, the Environmental Protection Agency is busy finalizing regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions from power plants under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act—the cornerstone of the Obama Administration's plan for reducing climate pollution using existing legal authorities. 

So how do the EPA efforts stack up? The answer depends on the final EPA rule, which is expected sometime this summer. Based on the agency's initial proposal, however, we can already get a sense of the rule's expected impacts. To give some context for what the new targets mean for the U.S., and how the 111(d) regulations will help reach them, I've put together this summary chart: 

Carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in the United States

Putting the targets in perspective

As this figure illustrates, it's important for policymakers to think beyond the 111(d) regulations. Even if the EPA achieves the full emission reductions announced in the agency's proposed rulemaking, there's still a significant gap between projected U.S. emissions and its Copenhagen target for 2020. The gap in 2025 is even larger. 

Furthermore, when viewed from the perspective of the U.S. target under the Kyoto Protocol—which the U.S. never ratified and therefore never actually pursued—these targets seem a little underwhelming. 

But it's not all bad news. Here are two reasons for optimism. First of all, 111(d) isn't the only federal climate policy in development; for example, there important efforts underway to reduce short-lived climate pollutants like methane and black carbon. Second—and much more important in my view—is the questionable track record of official government energy projections. 

The figure above shows the Energy Information Administration's standard reference forecast, AEO2014. As I'll discuss in a separate post, EIA's projections have a tendency to miss positive developments in energy efficiency and in renewable energy. If EIA's baseline emission projections are too high (as I believe they are), then the gap between what EPA's 111(d) regulations will achieve and the U.S. policy targets could be much smaller—and possibly non-existent.

What's clear is that more effort is needed. Some will come from the private sector, with continued success in the wind, solar, and energy efficiency industries. Some will come from state policy, which has a critical role to play in the electricity sector. But there's still a need for more and better federal climate policy. EPA's 111(d) regulations are not enough—they are only the beginning. 

Technical note: 

Carbon dioxide emissions data are from EPA's greenhouse gas emissions inventory. The forecasted baseline emissions are from the reference scenario in EIA's Annual Energy Outlook 2014. To harmonize the EIA projections and EPA's expected emissions reductions, I subtracted the electricity sector emissions from the AEO2014 scenario and replaced them with the electricity section emissions from EIA's Regulatory Impact Analysis for the 111(d) state compliance scenario (see Table ES-2 here).