Comments Off on Can the United States Meet Its Emissions Reduction Target?

It is not widely discussed, but the United States does, in fact, have a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. In the heady days of January 2010 after the Copenhagen Climate Conference, many nations put pen to paper and wrote to the UNFCCC pledging to reduce emissions by 2020 relative to some baseline. This was a requirement of the Copenhagen Accord, although the nature of the baseline and the scale of reduction was up to individual nations. The United States pledged to reduce emissions by 17 percent by 2020, relative to a 2005 baseline. Specifically:

United States of America – Base Year 2005
In the range of 17%, in conformity with anticipated U.S. energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation.

Given the failure to enact federal climate legislation, one might think that this target had been quietly shelved. Far from it – in scanning the Australian media recently I spotted an insightful interview with the United States Ambassador to Australia. In the interview, Ambassador Bleich argues that the USA is on track to meet its 2020 greenhouse gas target because of the breadth of activity across the economy in transforming the energy system.

THE US ambassador to Australia says America is pulling its weight in international efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions, contrary to suggestions a carbon tax would see Australia acting ”ahead of the rest of the world”. In an interview with the (Sydney Morning) Herald, Ambassador Jeff Bleich said the idea that America was lagging was “not accurate at all” and it was “absolutely realistic” to believe the US would meet its target of a 17 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, based on 2005 levels.

“The US is taking dramatic action, if you look at the largest investment in history in energy transition, the major regulatory reforms for the largest emitters and consumers of energy, the focus on the dirtiest emission technologies used by power plants and vehicles … we are moving on a very aggressive regulatory effort,” he said. “… there’s absolutely no question the United States has been doing a tremendous amount over the last two years … and going forward the President has said we need to double what we are doing because that is good for our economy.”

Is the ambassador correct? Can the USA reduce its emissions enough to meet its pledge to the international community?

In early 2009, when the new Obama administration first discussed such a target, it looked to be a formidable undertaking even with a clear policy framework in place. Yet much has changed as a result of the global financial crisis and the expanding role of natural gas in the economy. Recent (April 2011) greenhouse gas data released by the Environmental Protection Agency for the calendar year 2009 shows the impact of the recession, but also offers some further insight into the pathway forward. Economy wide emissions have dropped sharply, with the carbon intensity of the power generation sector dropping even faster.

Graphic by David Hone; Source: EPA

Natural gas production continues to grow strongly on what now appears to be a sustainable upward trend. Production has risen by about 12 Bcf/d over six years, i.e. an increase of 2 Bcf/d per year. This has displaced imports of natural gas and allowed more rapid take-up of gas in the power generation sector. Today, North America hardly imports natural gas, with most of the US imports coming from Canada.

Even if the annual increase in gas production is half the current trend, sufficient additional production would be available through to 2020 to see the displacement of some 70 gigawatts of coal fired generation capacity. In addition, revised EPA regulations are also expected to have an impact on coal fired power generation, with older units finding it uneconomic to comply with the new regulations. A continued transition from coal to natural gas in power generation would see emissions from the sector drop, particularly if renewable energy programs (but mainly wind) are filling in capacity gaps in the power market. This is because generating one kilowatt hour of electricity from coal releases up to a kilogram of carbon dioxide, but less than half this when natural gas is used. As this is about the United States meeting a particular emissions target in 2020, then this change is beneficial, even as there is debate about the long term climate impact of using natural gas instead of coal.

The auto sector is also changing. Biofuels are continuing to come into the mix and by 2020 some (small) part of the fleet will be electric. The administration has also reached agreement with the vehicle manufacturers on even tougher CAFE standards, as announced at the end of July.

JULY 29th 2011, WASHINGTON, DC – President Obama today announced a historic agreement with thirteen major automakers to pursue the next phase in the Administration’s national vehicle program, increasing fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by Model Year 2025. The President was joined by Ford, GM, Chrysler, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar/Land Rover, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo – which together account for over 90% of all vehicles sold in the United States – as well as the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the State of California, who were integral to developing this agreement.

But can these CAFE standards also deliver a reduction in CO2 emissions? To find out we (myself with colleague Alex Ratcliffe) developed a simple spreadsheet model of the US auto fleet through to the 2020s (for those interested, a further description can be found here ). Starting in 2009 with total car and light truck CO2 emissions at 1.2 billion metric tons, the model shows a reduction by 2020 of 180 million metric tons of CO2 per year against a US total greenhouse gas emissions of some six billion metric tons per year in 2005.

Pulling all this together and assuming some rise in industrial CO2 as the economy recovers, but no rise in other sectors as efficiency improvements take hold, it is possible to build a case for a reduction in CO2 emissions of up to 17 percent by 2020 vs. 2005. The real unknown of course is the possibility of an emissions upswing over this decade as the economy shifts back into full gear.

US success in meeting the 2020 target could profoundly affect the broader discussions on reducing CO2 emissions, both in the USA and more widely. After 2020 we might we see more acceptance of CO2 measures on the basis that emissions had fallen, it hadn’t damaged the economy or society, so “we can then do more.” But it could be a double edged sword, with complacency creeping in on the back of the argument that the market has responded and CO2 is taking care of itself, so there is no need to worry about it.

Credit for all graphics: David Hone. Sources: EPA, EIA

Shell is a sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative, which includes this blog. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.