US INDC leaves gap between aspiration and action

The US Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) for COP 21 negotiations on climate change action is a 26–28% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2025 relative to 2005 levels. The plan professes to be “fair and ambitious.” Truth be told, these numbers are relatively ambitious in that they reflect approximate doubling in the rate of emissions reduction previously set out for the previous goal of 17% by 2020. However, Climate Action Tracker rates this goal as “medium” indicating that the plan is at the “least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution.”

Forgetting “fair” for now, I want to pick apart the extent to which the US can reasonably expect to meet the pace of reduction required to meet 26–28 percent emissions reduction by 2025. The US INDC outlines existing legislation and rules that the US expects to leverage greatly for the emission reductions. Under the existing statues, the US will continue to regulate fuel economy, HCF use, and building energy use (including appliances), as well as develop new regulations for carbon emissions from power plants, and methane emissions from landfills and the oil and gas sector.

While I appreciate the importance per unit (e.g. car, building, landfill, etc.) emissions reduction, this strategy is bound to fail without absolute caps on emissions from these sectors. As we have seen in tailpipe emissions standards from the past (e.g. hydrocarbson, CO, and NOx), per unit standards are not sufficient to reduce total pollution. In an overview of automobile emissions regulations, EPA reports that

Efforts by government and industry since 1970 have greatly reduced typical vehicle emissions. In those same years, however, the number of miles we drive has more than doubled. The increase in travel has offset much of the emission control progress. The net result is a modest reduction in each automotive pollutant except lead, for which aggregate emissions have dropped by more than 95 percent.

Even if the Clean Power Plan and other regulatory initiatives do survive a Senate that is constantly trying to ax environmental rules, this lesson from past pollution regulation shows that mandating that our cars have excellent fuel economy will not be sufficient to reduce total auto emissions as long as more people are driving more miles. Extending this lesson, we can assume that mandating our buildings use little energy and that our landfills and oil and gas operations have fewer fugitive methane emissions will not be sufficient to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reach the 26–28% reduction goal as long as we are building more and bigger houses, sending more refuse to landfill, and demanding more oil and gas. What we need is a fundamental change in American ideas about standards of living and economic prosperity.

Most economists agree that the “right” carbon price would be the most cost efficient method to incentivize carbon emissions reduction. The price signal could go a long way toward at least reprioritizing American standards of living and economic prosperity. Given the current political climate in the US, however, this idea is a non-starter. Certainly, there are other regulatory mechanisms to limit absolute emissions, such as regulatory caps on power plant emissions and limits on driving. These methods would also force lifestyle changes for Americans and are also politically unattractive. The fact remains, then, that without a price on carbon, absolute caps on emissions, or other ideas to create a fundamental shift in standards, the future of carbon emissions reductions in the United States remains dubious.