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Creating a net zero carbon goal not as easy as rejoining Paris Agreement

16 December 2020 Amena Saiyid

Rejoining the Paris Accord on climate change will be easy for US President-elect Joe Biden compared with the task of revising a goal to reach economywide net zero carbon levels by mid century.

Climate analysts and attorneys alike say rejoining the 2015 accord should not pose a problem for Biden because it is a non-binding international agreement that doesn't commit the US to making any carbon emissions cuts. It merely urges all signatories to make a good faith effort to commit to carbon emissions cuts so that temperatures do not rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.

Procedurally, it would be very easy for Biden, Daniel Bodansky, senior adviser at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, and Elliot Diringer, the center's executive vice president, wrote in a joint blog. "He can rejoin the Paris Agreement on Day 1, simply by depositing an instrument of acceptance with the UN Secretary-General. Thirty days later, the United States will again be a party," they wrote.

The real challenge for the Biden administration is to put forward a new nationally determined contribution (NDC) for the US that is widely viewed as "ambitious and credible," Bob Perciasepe, the center's president, told IHS Markit.

Climate change on National Security agenda

As president-elect, Biden already has made global climate change a priority of his administration, elevating the issue for the first time to the National Security Council level, and by appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as the first presidential envoy on climate. Kerry was the top US diplomat involved in the talks that led to the Paris Agreement.

"For the first time ever, there will be a principal on the National Security Council who will make sure climate change is on the agenda in the Situation Room," Biden said 24 November, introducing Kerry.

During his election campaign, Biden pledged to achieve a net-zero carbon-emitting US power sector by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions across the economy by 2050.

If Biden adopts his campaign pledge as the US national contribution, it would place the country on a much faster and ambitious energy transition than the commitment President Barack Obama made in March 2015, according to climate analysts.

Obama goal 'a placeholder'

Obama committed to achieving a 26%-28% economywide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with 2005 levels by 2025.

"It is not yet clear whether in rejoining the Paris Agreement the United States will introduce a new, higher level of commitment in keeping with the president-elect's plan," Steven Knell, senior director of IHS Markit's Gas, Power and Energy Futures group, wrote in a 13 November insight article.

Knell, who specializes in low-carbon transitions, opined that the US may retain its 2015 commitment as a placeholder until a new target can be formulated, "potentially in support of the global stock-take to raise the NDC ambition by 2023 called for under the Paris Agreement."

Biden to date has expressed no misgivings about moving forward with adopting his campaign climate pledge.

"Let me be clear: I don't for a minute underestimate the difficulties of meeting my bold commitments to fighting climate change. But at the same time, no one should underestimate for a minute my determination to do just that," Biden said 24 November.

Multi-agency effort

To get to the point where the US can commit to Biden's campaign pledge would require a White House-led multi-agency effort, as was the case during the Obama administration, according to Janet McCabe, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Air and Radiation in 2015.

Five years ago, the Obama White House staff drew on multiple agencies, including the EPA, with expertise in forecasting and reducing emissions to pull together a mix of voluntary and mandatory carbon reduction programs that would inform the US nationally determined commitment to the Paris Agreement, said McCabe, who currently is the director of Indiana University's Environmental Resilience Institute.

By all accounts, she said, Biden likely will issue an executive order that is expected to provide guidance to various agencies, including EPA and the departments of Interior, Energy and Transportation, on issues to tackle early. These will include revisiting Obama-era greenhouse gas regulations for passenger cars and light trucks, power plants, and oil and gas facilities that President Donald Trump has weakened over the past four years through executive fiats and rulemakings.

"The various agencies will want to work together quickly to assess reduction opportunities, updating those predictions from 2016, since much has changed in the country in the last four years, including the urgency for steep reductions in carbon emissions," McCabe said.

White House Climate Policy Coordinator

Biden said 24 November he plans to name a high-level White House Climate Policy Coordinator along with a policy-making structure in December that will lead US efforts to mobilize action to combat the climate crisis. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who spearheaded the nation's first ever greenhouse gas regulation for power plants, is reportedly the top candidate for this position.

Perciasepe said Biden doesn't have to commit to an economywide net carbon zero by mid century as part of its updated national commitments. The Paris Agreement allows each country to update its NDC every five years.

The US can start off with Biden's initial pledge to decarbonize the electric power sector, which is best positioned to achieve the cuts rapidly. In the short term, Perciasepe said the US power industry can replace coal with natural gas and renewables, while preserving nuclear and hydro generation—two sources of zero carbon emissions—that represent 25% of power generation.

By 2030, the US can revisit its national contribution to carbon emissions and take steps like cutting emissions by gas-fired power plants.

'Serious Muscle'

Kerry's appointment comes at a crucial juncture as countries will resume climate talks that were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The 26th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) is now scheduled to meet in November 2021 in Glasgow, UK, when most expect the US to not only bump up its five-year-old contribution but take a leading role in talks.

At that meeting, most countries will expect the US, as a world leader, to either report on its national contribution or show what it could be, Perciasepe said.

Perciasepe said Biden is putting "some serious muscle" into the international arena on climate change by appointing Kerry, a former US senator, a Democratic presidential nominee and a former Secretary of State, to take on the portfolio of climate change.

"This action alone sends a very powerful statement on the domestic and international fronts," said Perciasepe, who served under Obama as EPA deputy administrator from 2009 through 2017.

Lauding Biden's climate pledge, Kerry said the US, which accounts for 15% of global GHG emissions, cannot solve the climate crisis alone. "Mr. President-elect — you've put forward a bold, transformative climate plan that lives up to the moment. But you've also underscored that no country alone can solve this challenge," Kerry said. "The world must come to the table."

Alluding to the COP-26 meeting, Kerry said that "all nations must raise ambition together - or we will all fail, together."

Posted 16 December 2020 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate and Energy Research Analyst



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