China’s annual emissions today are higher than that of the US. But such a bald assertion glosses over irrefutable, indeed inconvenient truths. One, the US remains the number 1 historical greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, especially CO2. Two, its per capita CO2 emissions (the most important GHG) are among the highest in the world. Three, its dogged lack of ambition in contributing to climate change mitigation has always been a puzzle, for the US has always had the capacity to reduce its GHG emissions. Whereas 1990 is the baseline fixed in the global climate convention for nations to reduce GHG emissions, the US’ choice is 2005, because, between 1990 and 2005, the country allowed its emissions to grow, whereas it should have actually been reducing its emissions. In its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), submitted in May 2015, the US has agreed to reduce GHG emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. This means it has agreed to cut GHG emissions to 4,700-4,800 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) by 2025, compared to 6,438 MMTCO2e in 2005. If the US had used 1990 as base year and gone for the same degree of emissions reduction as it has in the INDC, in 2025 its total emissions would have been 4,200-4100 MMTCO2e. Just by changing the base year, the US has avoided cutting 500 MMTCO2e of GHG emissions by 2025. Also, by including hard-to-quantify measures like encouraging sinks under the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) in its future GHG emissions reduction plans, the US has masks another 250 MMTCO2e of excess GHG emissions in 2025, which it would have had to commit to if it had excluded LULUCF.
What’s worse, there is no evidence of a policy-driven downward trend in US GHG emissions post-2005. Emissions from all sectors, barring industries, are higher in 2013 compared to 1990 levels. There was a recession-led dip in emissions 2007 on, but these are climbing up again. Under the best and most-climate-progressive scenario, the US’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) has projected, the country will still produce 22% more primary energy in 2030, over 2013 levels. In 2013, 78% of the country’s total primary energy came from fossil fuels. In 2030, 76% will come from fossil fuels. The shift to renewables, too, remains marginal. Under CPP, renewables in 2030 will contribute 15% of the country’s primary energy production. But once we realise that, in 2013, renewables contributed 9%,it becomes evident this shift is illusory.
The shift to natural gas to generate electricity will not reduce emissions in an energy growth scenario. This is because the US is under-estimating the future role of methane—the GHG emitted all through the natural gas production-to-use cycle—in its emissions reduction plans. Car sales, by 2017, are expected to break the previous high record of 2000. Indeed, there is no real change in the way the US travels. Over 86% Americans travel to working using a car or a van; only 9.4% use carpools. The use of public transport to commute remains at a mere, and inconsequential, 5%—uncchanged in the last decade. Therefore, there is no reason to believe the future will not be more of the present. The 35% emissions reduction that underpins the US climate action plan for vehicles could well turn out to be a dud, or close to it.
Excerpts from the Centre of Science and Environment report, Capitan America: US climate goals—a reckoning