Announcing a goal (however eloquently) does not make it happen. The energy and environment field is littered with attempts to make change by legislative or administrative fiat, while ignoring the unpleasant hard realities of technology limitations and cost. The millions – if not billions – of gallons of cellulosic ethanol that motorists would be enjoying if the Bush administration’s RFS targets had come true is a perfect example. The Obama administration is equally adept (if not more so) at weaving such fantasies. Sadly, the latest US steps in the UN climate negotiations once again reveal a disconnect between wishes (sorry, targets) and reality.
In November the White House announced, as part of the U.S. – China climate agreement, that the U.S. would “commit” at the Paris talks to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. We eagerly awaited the formal State Department submission that would describe just how this would be done, because we pointed out (here) that the measures the Administration listed in the accompanying Fact Sheet at that time did not add up to the necessary reductions. And last week the State Department submitted its formal “intended nationally determined contribution”, which ostensibly describes how we’re going to do this. Interestingly, it includes even fewer measures than the White House talked about in November, having been scrubbed of any mention of limiting methane emissions from coal mines or agriculture. And, to no one’s surprise, it falls dramatically short.
Let’s look at the numbers again in light of subsequent regulatory developments. Total U.S. emissions in 2005 were 6,223 million metric tons (“MMT”) of CO2 equivalent, and 26% of that is 1,618 MMT. By 2012, with the aid of major recession and a dash for gas in the power sector, we had reduced total emissions by 677 MMT (to 5,546 MMT). So, to meet the 26% goal, at first glance it looks like we would need to cut another 941 MMT by 2025. (We use 2012 figures because that is the starting point for what we actually need to accomplish; all emissions numbers are from EPA’s 2014 Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2012, which is the most recent official U.S. report to the Paris process.) But, as DOE points out, even with all the regulatory measures that were in place as of 2013, due to economic growth their Reference Case emissions will increase by 236 MMT between 2012 and 2025 (EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2014, p. A-5). Thus to meet the 26% reduction target, we need to eliminate 1,177 MMT of annual emissions over the next ten years.
Here are the measures listed in the U.S. submission, and what EPA and DOE say (elsewhere, as predictably there are no numbers whatsoever in the submission) that the expected reductions will be:
EIA says that the cumulative emissions difference between the two cases from 2012 to 2040 is 2.6 billion metric tons (2014 Annual Energy Outlook, p. IF-7). We then subtracted the 11% of which is due to increased fuel economy and another 5% for the “relatively small” reduction attributable to increased renewable generation (id.), leaving a total of 2.2 billion metric tons reduced between 2012 and 2040, which works out to an average of 80 MMT/year. (This is a generous estimate, because annual savings will increase over time as new standards are added.)
We need 1,177 MMT in reductions to fulfill the U.S. commitment. Even assuming (1) that standards that have not yet been proposed (for existing landfills, oil & gas operations, heavy-duty vehicles and some DOE efficiency ones) become law and work as expected; (2) that those as-yet unknown standards produce exceptional results (e.g., 50% reductions for landfills and 45% for oil & gas); (3) that those standards plus all the ones that have been proposed but are not yet finalized (power plants, new landfills, and other DOE efficiency measures) are completed in a timely manner, survive judicial review and produce the reductions expected; and (4) that this or the next Administration does nothing to slow down or weaken any of them, then we’re looking at maximum annual reductions in 2025 of 847 MMT, leaving us 330 MMT short of even the lower end of our Paris “commitment”.
(This post first appeared at the website of our friends at the Niskanen Center, https://niskanencenter.org)