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America’s New Climate Policy Is Its Boldest Ever, And Still Not Enough

The next 20 years of American climate goals are now in writing. On Tuesday, the U.S. submitted its plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in advance of international climate talks in Paris this December. The pledge represents the U.S.’s most ambitious climate targets to date — but will they be enough to meet the internationally agreed-upon target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius?

Not quite.

The U.S. proposal says that, by 2025, the country will reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels, essentially formalizing targets President Obama announced last November in Beijing as part of a joint agreement between the U.S. and China. The pledge, according to the White House, will “roughly double the pace at which we’re reducing carbon pollution through cost-effective measures using laws already on the books.”

That last bit is key given Congress’s Republican leadership, which has pledged to undo what it calls Obama’s “war on coal.” As a result, the administration’s proposed cuts will come through regulations administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. (Republicans have been vocal opponents of such actions.) These new restrictions on greenhouse gases will come from four areas — the EPA’s new power plant emissions rules (currently being contested in a case heard at the Supreme Court last week), DOE fuel economy standards for vehicles, energy efficiency rules for appliances and buildings, and forthcoming regulations on methane emissions.

There’s a consortium of four climate research organizations that analyzes this kind of thing and produces the Climate Action Tracker (CAT). The CAT method ranks countries’ submissions to the UN convention, formally known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), on the scale below.

CATrankings

According to this metric, the U.S. plan falls in the “medium” range. “They’re in the least ambitious end of the 2 degree global emission pathway,” physicist Bill Hare, founder and CEO of Climate Analytics, said. That means that if the U.S. goes no further than these targets, other countries will have to pick up the slack.

But where the extra reductions would come from remains uncertain. Other INDCs that CAT has analyzed, such as those of the EU, Switzerland, Mexico and Norway, also fall into the medium category. China has not yet submitted its INDC, but based on the agreement laid out in Beijing, “If you compare the U.S. to China, we see similar levels of effort,” Hare said.

Despite its shortcomings, the political significance of U.S. action can’t be underestimated, Hare said. If the U.S.’s reductions decreased by just a few percentage points, it “would have a very big impact globally,” in part because of the peer pressure it could exert. “I think you would see a multiplier effect in Paris if the U.S. were to go toward a 28 percent or even better goal,” Hare said.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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