Climate scientists say Obama policy 'too little, too late'

August 23, 2015

The Obama administration's announcement that the United States' power sector would deliver a 30% cut in emissions by 2030 was hailed by many as a breakthrough in meaningful action.

US Secretary of State John Kerry suggests the “US is setting an example to the world on climate change”. Reuters said, “U.S. unveils sweeping plan to slash power plant pollution” and the president of the World Resources Institute declared the proposals to be a “momentous development”.

Dig a little deeper and there is recognition that more still needs to be done. British environmental campaigner Bryony Worthington tweeted: “US creeps towards comprehensive climate action plan. Level of cuts too low over too long a time period. Will need tightening. Just like EU.”

European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard noted how “for Paris to deliver what is needed to stay below a 2°C increase in global temperature, all countries, including the United States, must do even more than what this reduction trajectory indicates”.

But how much more is needed from the US and international community to meet their repeated commitment “to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius”? And is the US proposal part of the solution or part of the problem?

The US’s plan to reduce power sector emissions by 30% by 2030 on 2005 levels is the jewel in the crown of US mitigation policies. Under current proposals economy-wide cuts in total emissions will be much less than 30%; Climate Action Tracker (CAT) estimates emissions will be just 10% below their 2005 level.

Yet even if total emissions were to follow the example of the power sector, they would still fall far short of the country’s 2°C commitments enshrined in agreements from the Copenhagen Accord to the Camp David Declaration.

The EU, with emissions per person just 50% of those for a typical US citizen, needs an across the board cut of more than 80% by 2030 from 2005 levels if it is to make its fair contribution to avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change. Given the higher per capita emissions of the US, cuts there would need to be greater still.

Consequently, while Obama’s proposition is certainly brave within the rarified political environment of Congress, it signals yet another wealthy nation whose weak domestic targets are fatally undermining international obligations around 2°C.

The low level of ambition of the US, EU, Russia, China et al is why global emissions are set on a pathway much more aligned with a 4°C to 6°C future than the 2°C of our rhetorical targets.

Moreover, given that temperatures relate to the cumulative build up of CO₂ in the atmosphere, failure to radically cut emissions in the short-term locks in higher temperatures and “dangerous” impacts, particularly for “poorer populations”.

Ramping up the mitigation effort post 2030 will simply be too late. This is a challenging message with implications for policy makers - and all of us - that we have thus far refused to countenance.

So while the science and maths around 2°C provides an unequivocal basis for radical cuts in emissions from wealthier nations, the politics continues to deliver grand but ultimately ineffectual gestures.

[Kevin Anderson is Professor of energy and climate change and Deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for climate change research. Maria Sharmina Research Associate at the Tyndall Centre for climate change research. Abridged from]

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