US Policy Fails To Protect Our Climate

Governments were charged by the UN to develop national plans for combating climate change in advance of the upcoming 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11.  These “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” are to be used by the climate treaty secretariat to create a draft agreement for discussion and approval at the Paris conference.

The US government submitted its Intended National Determined Contribution in May.  In it, the government stated that the US intends to reduce its economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.  It calls this target “fair and ambitious.”

However, as the just released report–Captain America, US climate goals: a reckoningauthored by the New Delhi Center for Science and the Environment, makes clear, this commitment is anything but fair and ambitious.

As the report points out, the 2005 baseline is key to US claims of climate change progress.  Most importantly, US greenhouse gas emissions hit a post-1990 peak in 2005 and trended down over the following years.  Setting its target against this base year rather than the 1990 base year that was widely endorsed in past UN meetings greatly eases the ability of the US to meet its own self-declared target.  This recent decrease in emissions has also allowed the US to falsely present itself as part of the climate change solution not problem.

As we can see in the graph below, despite the reduction in recent years, US emissions were still greater in 2013 than they were in 1990.  Thus, the US has not actually begun reducing its emissions relative to 1990.

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Moreover, as we see in the next graph, US emissions fluctuate yearly and the post-2005 reduction is likely more the result of the recent major recession and weak economic expansion, not a restructured and more environmentally stable economy.  In fact, emissions have begun to grow again.

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As the Center for Science and the Environment explains:

Whereas 1990 is the baseline fixed in the global climate convention for nations to reduce GHG emissions, the US’ choice is 2005. It is the first mask the US wears to veil its climate-inaction. The US has cleverly used 2005 as its base year because, 1990-2005, the US allowed its emissions to grow, whereas it should have actually been reducing its emissions. The masking effect of 2005 as a base to reduce emissions translates to millions of tons of CO2 emissions the US has cloaked — that, for some reason, the world has failed to notice.

If we calculate the US emissions target using a 1990 baseline, its pledge translates into a far more modest reduction of 13-15 percent by 2025. This is even lower than what it had pledged at the 2010 Cancun UN climate meetings.  In percentage as well as absolute terms, the US INDC trails that of many countries, including that of the EU-28.

The year 2005 was important to the US for yet another reason.  It was the last year that the US was the world’s largest yearly emitter of greenhouse gasses.  China now holds the title.  This development has helped the US shift public attention from its own historical responsibilities for our global climate change crisis to the rising emissions of emerging economies like China and India.

However, the US still remains one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters on a percapita basis, as we can see in the following graph.

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And, the US is still the biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gases.  As the Center for Science and the Environment explains:

So far, we have looked at the ‘flow’ of US emissions. But what of the stock: 411 billion tons CO2, emitted 1850-2011?  The US has borrowed from the global commons a share of other countries’ carbon space to become the economic powerhouse it is today. This is its natural debt. And, as with a financial debt, the natural debt needs to be paid. Try as it might, the US cannot erase its historical emissions from its climate action record. CO2 is a gas with a past, present and future. Once emitted, it stays in the atmosphere. So, the US’s past emissions are a legacy that must be accounted for in any future emissions reduction plan or move. 1850-2011, the US was responsible for 21 per cent of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.20 emissions have caused the warming we see today, whose impacts are now devastating the lives of the poorest. It has the capacity. But it also has the responsibility to reduce emissions. Not by tinkering year-to-year, or creating a perceptual veneer of reduction, but rather through drastic reductions that make space for the rest of the world to grow.

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The report, which examines US energy production, consumption, and policies in great detail, makes clear that the US has yet to take meaningful steps to create a more ecologically responsible economy.  In fact, as we see next, the US has become the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas and its fossil fuel consumption continues to grow.

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Tragically, US determination to continue with business as usual will likely mean that the upcoming UN conference will once again be long on speeches and short on meaningful action. Unfortunately, there is no fooling the climate or avoiding the consequences of inaction.

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