Countries Might Actually Hit Their Climate Targets. Really!

The world may be less screwed on climate than we thought.
April 29, 2021, 3:03pm
Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden. At a virtual climate summit hosted by Biden last week, Canada was among several countries that pledged to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden. At a virtual climate summit hosted by Biden last week, Canada was among several countries that pledged to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions. Photos via Getty Images

When California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state would phase out all oil and gas production by 2045, the outcry came fast from drilling groups, Fox News, and even Caitlyn Jenner, who claimed “banning fracking only increases our dependence on foreign oil.” 

But polling suggests the decision is widely popular. And this week the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle urged Newsom to go further and start banning new drilling permits next year, arguing, “It’s hard to imagine a better political strategy than bold, aggressive, and uncompromising leadership on climate change.”

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What’s happening in California could be evidence of a new political reality: A combination of public anxiety about climate disasters, an exploding clean energy sector, and a fossil business model in decline is enabling commitments from government leaders that go far beyond what many climate advocates recently thought possible. 

“From the time the scientists started sounding the alarm, we’ve waited way too long,” former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said earlier this week. “But I’m very optimistic that we’re crossing the political tipping point right now.”

The Biden administration is now promising to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030, relative to 2005 levels, which is approaching the scale of reduction scientists say is necessary to stabilize global temperature rise at the crucial threshold of 1.5 C. Major emitters such as the U.K., the European Union, Canada, and Japan made comparable pledges at a virtual climate summit hosted by Biden last week.  

Achieving these goals won’t be easy, and success isn’t necessarily likely, advocates say. But the prospects for aggressive global cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, along with policies that shrink the fossil fuel operations largely responsible for those emissions, have never been greater. 

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“It is a big step in a positive direction,” Michael Lazarus, head of the U.S. Center for the Stockholm Environment Institute, a global research and policy organization, said of Biden’s climate commitments. “It was unimaginable a year ago.”

If Democrats can get Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure package passed by Congress, which prioritizes spending on green projects, it could, by the early 2030s, drive down electric power emissions in the U.S. by as much as 74 percent below 2005 levels, according to research from Rhodium Group, a non-partisan New York-based organization, while creating 600,000 jobs per year. Additional regulations from a newly energized Environmental Protection Agency “deliver further gains” on the climate, it notes. 

The Biden administration is also drafting stricter regulations on vehicle emissions. That could help accelerate a shift towards electric cars and trucks, which currently make up only 2 percent of vehicle sales in the U.S. And Biden’s plan to retrofit over 2 million homes as part of the proposed infrastructure package could speed up the decarbonization of buildings. 

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These aggressive promises are feasible partly because the green economy is booming. There are currently 232 gigawatts of wind and solar projects being planned or under construction in the U.S., calculates the market intelligence group S&P Global. That is enough energy to potentially power 70 million homes. 

After a COVID-related oil crash last year that at one point sent prices into the negatives, oil and gas production in the U.S. is set to recover but still remain at levels below 2019, according to the Energy Information Administration. This is consistent with a growing number of forecasts from groups such as the Norwegian energy services company DNV GL, which predict that global demand for fossil fuels has permanently peaked. 

“The oil and gas industry is in terminal decline,” said Kassie Siegal, Climate Law Institute director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “There is a chance to get ahead of this.”

The declining fortunes of oil and gas are slowly altering political realities in major oil producing countries such as Canada, whose national energy regulator is now predicting oil prices will remain at a relatively lacklustre $55 or so per barrel over the coming decades. That might significantly limit expansions of Canada’s high-cost, high-carbon tar sands industry.    

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At the climate summit last week, the Justin Trudeau government upped its climate target from a 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels to potentially a 45 percent cut, which is still 5 percent lower than the Biden target. A union representing workers in the tar sands, Canada’s largest source of emissions, responded to the news by saying targets should actually be stricter—provided there is a plan to assist affected workers find new careers. 

“We know that there’s an energy transformation happening,” said a representative for the union Unifor, which has 12,000 oil and gas workers as members. 

That transition is picking up speed in the European Union, which is implementing a “Green Deal” that could result in $1.2 trillion worth of spending to make all aspects of the economy greener. “It really cannot be overstated how important this is,” Nick Evans, a researcher at the Berlin-based think tank the Ecologic Institute, recently said.  

And China, currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is pledging to make its entire economy carbon neutral by the year 2060, following a promised peak in the country’s carbon emissions by 2030. Chinese and overseas experts calculate this timeline is roughly consistent with keeping global temperatures from surpassing 1.5 C.  

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There is plenty that could go wrong between now and then. China says it will continue to finance coal plants in other countries even while reducing its own coal use. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is making drastic cuts to his country’s environmental budget at a time when the Amazon, a crucial carbon sink, is being destroyed at record rates. 

Planned oil and gas expansions in the U.S. and Canada alone could use up two-thirds of the world’s remaining carbon budget, suggests a new working paper from Stockholm Environment Institute. Ominously, a new report from the International Energy Agency warns that global emissions could grow this year at their second-fastest rate in history. 

“The caution we’re hearing around this is really justified,” Lazarus said of the agency’s prediction. That said, he explains, it was somewhat inevitable that global emissions would rise after falling sharply in 2020 due in part to pandemic travel restrictions. 

The crucial question is whether all the targets and plans being announced by governments truly represent a new political reality on climate change, or if they’re just hollow promises. Despite the historic climate announcements from Biden, Greenpeace has graded his execution so far a 30 out of 100 for ambition, and other environmentalists are raising fears that the U.S. might outsource dirty industries abroad.  

“It’s really the next year and the year after that matter at this point,” Lazarus said. “There are two starkly different paths we could take.”

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.