Genuine U.S. action will only follow a global re-think

Europe's World

Climate & Energy

Picture of Megan Nicholson
Megan Nicholson

Policy Analyst with ITIF’s Center for Clean Energy Innovation (CCEI)

When the United States submitted its first internationally-recognised pledge to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to reduce carbon emissions, it called its targets “fair and ambitious”. But sadly those commitments are uninspired and do little more than agree to uphold America’s current climate policy engagements, which most see as unsatisfactory in the short term and far less than what is needed in the long term.

The U.S. commitment echoes President Obama’s late-2014 bi-lateral agreement with China to address climate change by reducing emissions by 28% from 2005 levels by 2025, and is based on current American efforts to increase fuel economy standards and regulate carbon emissions from power plants. The U.S. submission suggests these measures are enough to meet the 2020 national targets of 17% below 2005 levels, but achieving the 2025 target would in fact require a substantial acceleration of today’s pace of emission reduction, something that isn’t included in the submission.

If the U.S. is to convince others in Paris that it can be a leader on climate policy, it must redirect its efforts from filing status quo emission reduction commitments towards investing in innovation and next-generation energy technologies.

In his first term, President Obama committed to accelerating energy innovation through research and the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to advance high-risk, high-reward scientific breakthroughs.

The truth is, though, that since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, annual U.S. investment in energy innovation is at only a third of recommended levels. America’s partisan political gridlock has reduced U.S. climate and energy policy to shortsighted and unpopular executive orders and meaningless votes on the reality of climate change. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan – which aims to establish state-based regulations on carbon emissions from power plants – is the linchpin of the administration’s climate action, and dissenters in Congress are challenging it.

The Paris negotiations have become a symbol of the future of international climate mitigation, but fulfilling a request to create national carbon targets for the sake of symbolism will not serve the world’s climate mitigation needs. Carbon targets do not make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, and achievable carbon targets in the next decade will not meet the 2ºC target. Genuine climate action by the U.S. requires a re-think of the international climate policy framework so as to support long-term, bipartisan investments that supplement national emission reductions through energy innovation.  Instead of commending a 10-year mitigation pledge that may not last for more than two, the United States should lead the world with a pragmatic approach to deep decarbonisation and clean energy innovation.

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