by Jack Johnson
In 2020 President Trump successfully withdrew the United States (US) from the Paris Agreement (a three year process), making the US the first country to withdraw from the agreement and as a result the country was sidelined from global climate action discussions. Despite the continued vibrant climate movement among subnational groups in the US — for example, a democratic delegation still attended COP25 in 2019 — this retreat from the international stage was damaging for global climate efforts.
However, on his first day in office, President Biden reversed this policy, rejoining the Paris Agreement in an effort to reconnect with international climate efforts. The US’s renewed international climate presence is vital given that it’s the largest emitter per capita and the second-largest total emitter . The US is also the world’s largest economy, giving it significant policy influence . This article will explain the US’s updated NDC, and the actions it has taken to fulfill its climate pledge.
What is the US NDC Target?
The US’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution was submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on the 22nd April 2021 and targets a 50-52% greenhouse gas emissions reduction (GHG) below 2005 levels by 2030 .
This is a markedly stronger pledge than the US’s previous NDC commitment of 26-28% emissions reduction below 2005 levels by 2025 . Achieving this updated target would reduce emissions by 1.5 to 2.5 GtCO2e/yr (gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions per year) in 2030 relative to the US’s current trajectory .
1.5 GtCO2e/yr is equivalent to 4.5% of global CO2 emissions or the total yearly CO2 emissions of the world’s 5th largest emitter, Russia [4, 5]. Comparatively, 2.5 GtCO2e/yr is equivalent to 7% of global CO2 emissions or the total yearly CO2 emissions of the world’s 4th largest emitter, India [4, 5]. Emissions reductions of these orders are therefore significant.
While the updated NDC advances US emissions targets to be competitive with other advanced economies, it (like most of its counterparts) is not ambitious enough to meet the Paris Agreement 1.5°C target [6, 7]. If every country adopted the US emission target, warming would approach 3°C – a level of warming not seen for 3 million years which would send humanity down the irreversible path of unimaginable catastrophes caused by widespread drought, limited food production, and deadly heatwaves [8, 9].
Some improvements are needed with respect to domestic climate targets, but increased ambition is mostly required from the US’s international climate commitments . President Biden has committed to double annual overseas climate funding compared to the Obama Administration’s efforts, but this still doesn’t cover the US’s fair-share of international climate finance . According to a report in 2021, the US contributed 7% of its ‘fair share’ in 2017 to 2018 and contributed less to climate finance than France, Germany, Japan or the United Kingdom . Additionally, the US has committed to divest from ‘high-emitting’ international fossil fuel projects, which on top of being a vague threshold, is just a small step towards the necessary phase-out of all overseas fossil finance .
Rejoining the Paris Agreement and submitting a more ambitious NDC update represents progress for US climate action, however more aggressive targets are necessary to contribute its fair share to global climate efforts and avoid irreversible climate collapse.
Is the US achieving its target?
US emissions are currently 13% below 2005 emission levels . Urgent changes across all the largest emitting sectors of the US economy (transport, electricity generation, industry), as well as climate finance, are necessary if the US is to meet its 2030 target.
President Biden’s climate policies have mostly focused on reversing climate rollbacks of the Trump Administration . While these changes are necessary, they are not enough. For example, President Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline permit, which is a good policy reversal, but doesn’t decrease existing crude oil production and consumption .
Beyond re-implementing past climate policies, President Biden has rolled out a mixed bag of additional climate actions. On the positive side, $65bn has been committed to electricity grid upgrades, $39bn to develop public transport networks, and $3bn to new offshore wind projects . These investments are significant and provide necessary improvements, but ‘hundreds of billions’ more dollars are needed to fund the infrastructure overhaul necessary to meet key climate targets . Meanwhile, the US also continues to fund coal plants in Indonesia and Kenya, and still has no net-zero targets for buildings which account for 13% of US emissions [3, 11].
This mixed policy is largely due to the US political landscape where political parties are divided on the necessity, urgency and scale of climate action . This partisan split makes implementing ambitious nation-wide climate legislation difficult. Comparing President Biden’s proposed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to the approved by the Senate in 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is some indication of this challenge . In order to get Senate approval, the Biden Administration had to cut $363bn in clean energy tax credits, $35bn in climate science R&D, and $46bn in clean energy investment from the bill . Despite the climate limitations posed at the federal level, subnational actors (states, cities, businesses) provide a way forward.
The role of Subnational actors in achieving the US’s target
Subnational actors are a powerful force in the US economy – they represent approximately 70% of US GDP (equivalent to China’s GDP) . Among these actors, many are leading the charge on US climate action. Examples include:
- California’s Cap and Trade System . A system which sets a cap on emissions and incentivises uptake of clean energy sources.
- 30 states now have Renewable Portfolio Standards . The portfolios mandate renewable energy uptake.
- In 2020, 1,800 private and financial institutions petitioned for ‘an ambitious and equitable’ national climate target, pressuring the government to set stronger climate commitments. 
These cases provide hope that the updated US NDC commitments could be met even without appropriate federal-level policies.
Still, stronger federal action is needed to set more ambitious targets and ensure a cohesive climate response from the entire economy. National policies are also important from the perspective that they create dependability and credibility in the international community. This is so important in the context of climate change which can only be addressed by a cooperative global effort. With COP26 just around the corner, it will be interesting to see how the US’s return to the international climate action arena will be received. Will they be reinstated as an international leader or be met with mistrust regarding the longevity of their policies? After all, another presidential election, which may bring a complete climate policy reversal, is never too far away.
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 Hultman, N. and S. Gross, (2021) ‘How the United States can return to credible climate leadership’ Brookings Institute, Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/us-action-is-the-lynchpin-for-successful-international-climate-policy-in-2021/ <accessed 20 October 2021>.
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 United States Environmental Protection Agency (2021) ‘Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator’ Available at: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator <accessed 20 October 2021>.
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 Climate Action Tracker (2021) ‘China’ Available at: https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/china/ <accessed 20 October 2021>.
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 Lewis, R. (2015) ‘As UN says world to warm by 3 degrees, scientists explain what that means’ Aljazeera America, Available at: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/9/23/climate-change-effects-from-a-3-c-world.html <accessed 22 October 2021>.
 Colenbrander, S., Cao, Y., Pettinotti, l., (2021), ‘A fair share of climate finance? An initial effort to apportion responsibility for the $100 billion climate finance goal’ Available at: https://odi.org/en/publications/a-fair-share-of-climate-finance-an-initial-effort-to-apportion-responsibility-for-the-100-billion-climate-finance-goal/ <accessed 23 October 2021>.
 Climate Action Tracker (2021) ‘USA Policies & Action’ Available at: https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/usa/policies-action/ <accessed 20 October 2021>.
 Saha, D. et al. (2021) ‘US infrastructure Bill is Good, but Not Enough to Transform the Electricity Grid’ World Resources Institute, Available at: https://www.wri.org/insights/us-infrastructure-bill-good-not-enough-transform-electricity-grid <accessed 22 October 2021>.
 Pew Research Center (2016) ‘The Politics of Climate’ Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/10/04/the-politics-of-climate/ <accessed 20 October 2021>.
 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (2021), Available at: https://www.epw.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/e/a/ea1eb2e4-56bd-45f1-a260-9d6ee951bc96/F8A7C77D69BE09151F210EB4DFE872CD.edw21a09.pdf <accessed 22 October 2021>