Obama’s 17% climate mitigation target

Writing at Boing Boing, Saul Griffith has come up with a good analysis of President Barack Obama’s recently pledged climate change mitigation target of “17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050:”

As you’ll note, a 17% reduction over 2005 levels means only a 0.3% reduction over 1990 levels.

What you’ll also see is that Obama is making a commitment to emit 59 Gigatons from the US alone from 2010-2020, and a further 88 Gigatons from 2020-2050, for a total of 147 Gigatons of CO2. This is 22.7% of the 650 Gigaton limit implied by Meinshausen. This helps to see why it’s hard to get an agreement in Copenhagen. In order to avoid “dangerous levels of climate change” the US is committing to reduce its output to “only” 22.7% of global emissions, despite having only 4.5% of the global population. The other point to note is that even these reductions don’t satisfy the “emissions go to zero” aspect of this CO2 budget, as the US would still be emitting a gigaton of CO2 per year in 2050 under this plan.

As discussed here before, crafting a global emissions pathway to keep warming below 2°C is very challenging, particularly because of how countries with high per-capita emissions need to begin deep cuts very quickly. There is still an enormous gap between what is physically necessary to prevent dangerous climate change and the commitments that governments and politicians are willing to make.

That said, Obama’s target can legitimately be seen as part of an iterative process: a recognition that America cannot continue to emit greenhouse gasses in an unrestrained way. Eventually, however, the proposed cuts are going to need to get much deeper, or we are all going to have to start bracing for the changed world that more than 2°C of climate change would produce.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “Obama’s 17% climate mitigation target”

  1. “On emissions cuts, both sides need to give ground. Developing countries are right that America’s offer is unimpressive compared with 1990 figures, but the trajectory from now on is pretty steep. And, given that the crucial legislation is stuck in the Senate, Mr Obama’s decision to put any numbers on the table is a brave one. Senators react badly to the sense that their country is being pushed around by foreigners—as their pre-emptive rejection of the Kyoto protocol showed. A deal on the basis of the numbers America has offered would be better than no deal. Nor is China’s offer derisory. The Americans complain that China’s existing policies would achieve those cuts with no extra effort. True; but China, unlike America, has already introduced significant emissions-cutting measures.”

  2. As The Economist points out, this is a risky move. There is a chance that committing to any target will annoy the Senate into blocking climate change legislation.

    Starting with a weak target and then pressing for a stronger one is the model that has worked with other forms of pollution. It seems the pragmatic course here.

  3. US climate agency declares CO2 public danger

    Environmental Protection Agency declaration allows it to impose emissions cuts without agreement of reluctant Senate

    The Obama administration adopted its climate change plan B today, formally declaring carbon dioxide a public danger so that it can cut greenhouse gas emissions even without the agreement of a reluctant Senate.

    The timing of the announcement – in the opening hours of the UN’s Copenhagen climate change summit – prevents Barack Obama from arriving at the talks without concrete evidence that America will do its bit to cut the emissions that cause global warming.

    “Climate change has now become a household issue,” said Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), adding that the evidence of climate change was real and increasingly alarming. “This administration will not ignore science or the law any longer, nor will we ignore the responsibility we owe to our children and our grandchildren.”

    The announcement gives the EPA a legal basis for capping emissions from major sources such as coal power plants, as well as cars. Jackson said she hoped it would help to spur a deal in Copenhagen.

  4. “The second reason for all this commotion has to do with the fact that the present U.S. target looks much weaker than the one proposed by the EU. Europe has promised to cut its emissions by at least 20 percent from 1990 levels over the next decade, compared with 4 percent from the United States. The difference, though, is less than meets the eye. If you look to 2005 levels as the benchmark, then the EU target is equivalent to a 15 percent cut versus 17 percent for the United States. In other words, the Europeans have already cut their emissions significantly since 1990, so their new target won’t demand as much of a sacrifice in the future. To be sure, Europe deserves credit for having put some strong policies in place that have already helped keep emissions down. But the bulk of their success prior to 2005 can be chalked up to the collapse of Eastern Europe, to Margaret Thatcher’s breaking of the British coal unions, and to lower population growth. When all is accounted for, the difference between Europe and the United States is meaningful but marginal.”

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