The United States released its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) yesterday. The core of the commitment is a reduction of 26% to 28% below 2005 greenhouse gas emissions levels by the year 2025, a rate of emissions cuts that puts the U.S. on track for 80% emissions reductions by 2050, but will likely not be enough to prevent a continued rise in global average temperatures to no more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. What is crucial is that this plan allows for the adding of more aggressive decarbonization over time, as progress is made, technology develops, investment patterns shift, and as the UN process looks toward setting 1.5ºC as the upper limit for temperature rise.

Under the heading “Quantifiable information on the reference point, time frames, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and removals,” the INDC document specifies that “The U.S. target is for a single year: 2025.” This is significant, because it recognizes explicitly that the plan does not specify the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 2015-2025 period; it only aims to keep overall emissions levels within the stated range in the year 2025.

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The US INDC follows a “straight-line” trajectory for emissions reduction from 2005 levels to 17% below 2005 levels in 2020, then accelerates to between 26% and 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. According to the 2020 straight-line projection, US actions may already be ahead of the curve, opening the possibility of still more aggressive action by 2025.

The document does specify a number of already ongoing actions, supported by various federal laws and regulatory initiatives founded in those laws, that are the beginning of this aggressive emissions reduction strategy. This is an important signal to the world community, because the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action calls for INDCs that officially take effect in 2020. That is partly about preparing the legal and economic setting for national action, and partly about building political will between and among nations.

That the US can cite actions that show its INDC is already in motion has several benefits:

  1. It helps to build trust
  2. That should accelerate actions that other nations would take
  3. It reduces the overall burden to be covered by future action
  4. It models the leadership role nations can play
  5. It provides both legal and administrative precedent for what others will undertake

The U.S. INDC will bring emissions reduction rates to 2.3% to 2.8% per year, “an approximate doubling” of the rate of reduction estimated for the 2005 to 2020 period. That is important. It can help to raise the ambition of others that would need to at least double their rates of low-carbon development or direct emissions reduction.

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U.S. Pres. George H.W. Bush speaks to the 1992 Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, noting: “We come to Rio with an action plan on climate change. It stresses energy efficiency, cleaner air, reforestation, new technology. And I’m happy to report that I’ve just signed that framework convention on climate change. And today, I invite my colleagues from the industrialized world to join in a prompt start on the convention’s implementation.”

The strategy laid out in this document relies on existing laws and executive authority to promulgate regulations relating to fuel use and air pollution, including greenhouse gas pollution. In fact, there is far more authority not being tapped, in this plan, as the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change specifically requires all Parties (nations that have ratified the treaty, which the U.S. did under Pres. George H.W. Bush) to assist in the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

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Article VI of the United States Constitution reads, in part: “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land”. The executive branch of the US government has a Constitutional mandate to take action. The treaty (again: ratified under Pres. Bush) requires each of the biggest historic emitters (Annex I countries, of which the United States is one) to “adopt national policies and take corresponding measures on the mitigation of climate change, by limiting its anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing its greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs.”

There is opposition in Congress to the administration’s approach, but if Congress does not act to put in place a market-friendly carbon pricing plan, it may end up ceding authority to the executive branch. The Supreme Court, the United States Constitution, a global diplomatic negotiation, and the future direction of global financial flows will all be supporting the energy sector transformation driven by the INDC process.

One of the boldest elements of the plan, which demonstrates a genuine commitment to meeting our obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, is the announcement that the Federal Government of the United States “under Executive Order 13693 issued on March 25 2015, has set a new target to reduce these emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” Since 2008, Federal Government operations have seen a 17 percent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels, so progress is already underway, and again, here, there is momentum on which the U.S. can build to show serious leadership and to motivate new investment and technological innovation.

On the question of market mechanisms and carbon pricing, the U.S. INDC specifies that “the United States does not intend to utilize international market mechanisms to implement its 2025 target.” We favor a locally administered, locally retained carbon fee with 100% dividend to households, as more economically efficient for driving change in the United States. Congress has an opportunity to add force (and efficiency) to this INDC, by passing revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend legislation, which would support and enhance the decarbonization pathway laid out in the U.S. INDC.

We recognize that the INDC released by the United States on March 31, 2015, embraces the standard of “escalating ambition,” which was central to the U.S.-China deal announced last November, and which has become central to the charting of INDCs and for negotiating the Paris climate accord at the end of this year. Raising the level of ambition for reducing the threat of dangerous anthropogenic interference will have many economic, political, and security, benefits.

The U.S. Congress now has two important opportunities to make sure this plan plays out in the most ambitious and effective way possible: approve the requested funds for the Green Climate Fund, which will have a catalytic impact on new flows of investment around the world, and pass a revenue-neutral fee and dividend plan. These two simple, clear-headed acts of leadership, will allow for all major forces in the U.S. political landscape to come together to achieve the greatest possible progress, secure a resilient and sustainable economic future, and live up to the ethical and Constitutional obligation to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.

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On April 2, 2015, some of these insights were shared with Al Jazeera America for an article on the status of the INDC process:

“If you look at the U.S., EU, and China commitments, they’re bold in some ways but not enough to set a standard for the whole world,” Robertson said. “But the rate of acceleration of what’s being done looks like it will be enough if we keep the momentum going.”

That’s the goal adopted by Pathway to Paris, an initiative by the Citizen Climate Lobby, a coalition of citizens, stakeholders, NGOs, scholars, and policy-makers working to coordinate a strong agreement in Paris.

“I’m optimistic partly because of what I do, working with citizen volunteers actively building relationships,” Robertson said. “We don’t have to argue about climate change or throw snowballs — that’s all distraction. What’s happening is that we’re getting closer to a time when ideology is no longer a part of the discussion. Instead, it will be about how fast and efficiently are we going to do this.”

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Featured image: CC license Paul Bica

Written by Joseph Robertson

Joseph is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens' Climate Lobby. He coordinates the building of CCL's citizen engagement groups on 5 continents, leads the Citizens' Climate Engagement Network and represents CCL in the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, UNFCCC negotiations, and other UN processes. He is a member of the Executive Board of the UN-linked NGO Committee on Sustainable Development-NY and of the Policy and Strategy Group for the World We Want. He is also the founder of Geoversiv.net and the Geoversiv Foundation and the lead strategist supporting the high-level climate dialogue series Accelerating Progress, Advancing Innovation.

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