U.S. climate targets: In advance of Paris agreement, the Obama administration lets the world down.

Wimpy New U.S. Climate Targets Are Letting the World Down

Wimpy New U.S. Climate Targets Are Letting the World Down

The Slatest
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March 31 2015 5:27 PM

New U.S. Climate Targets Are Letting the World Down

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The Obama administration has missed a chance for truly ambitious climate policy.

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the U.S. submitted its first-ever official, internationally recognized plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020. Problem is, it’s pretty much just a retread of the path the U.S. is already on, which isn’t enough to keep global warming from crossing the “dangerous” two degree Celsius threshold—a point above which scientific consensus paints an increasingly bleak future, with global impacts capable of destabilizing human society.

As the country with the greatest historical responsibility for climate change, the U.S. was expected to increase its ambition in the run up to the important UN climate negotiations in Paris later this year. As it turns out, the U.S. believes it already has done as much as it can. The Obama administration’s new plan is essentially exactly what it had already outlined as part of its bilateral pledge with China late last year: a 26-28 percent reduction in emissions by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels. The only change is that now the U.S. has pledged to shoot for the upper end of that target—which analysts believe is easily achievable, and vastly short of what’s needed.

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Tuesday’s U.S. voluntary pledge—known in UN-speak as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution—was initially tough to download via a Google Chrome browser, which some considered symbolic:

The short five-page document contains a self-congratulatory two-page cover letter, touting the U.S. targets as “fair and ambitious.” However, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of independent climate analysts, the U.S. goal is neither. Factoring in various countries’ abilities to reduce carbon, the Climate Action Tracker preliminarily ranked the U.S. pledge as “medium,” not something to be especially proud of. The European Union and China fall into the same category.

Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, told Slate that the U.S. pledge was quite clearly a first step. “We’re going to have to strengthen ambition over time,” he said, adding that the Obama administration, dealing with a largely hostile Congress, is committing to the “most that they can” under existing law.

That may be, but given the fact the U.S. has emitted more total carbon than any other country—one-fifth of all carbon ever emitted—Obama could have at least used this moment to help developing countries transition to low carbon economies. Noticeably missing from Tuesday’s pledge were specifics on how the U.S. plans to fund its pledge to a floundering international climate change adaptation fund, for example, a key requirement that poor countries have attached to the current international negotiations, intended to partially account for the historical inequality of emissions.

But even that probably would not be enough to inspire other countries. One analysis from the consulting firm Climate Advisers shows that so far, the world’s pledges have been only half as ambitious as necessary. That’s led to leaders of the UN climate negotiations to ratchet back expectations for the agreement due to be signed in Paris in December.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.