The United States is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions far too slowly to help avert the worst effects of global warming. But what would happen if the country adopted seven of the most ambitious climate policies already in place around the world?
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are currently projected to stay fairly flat. Reducing them faster would require major advances in clean technology or big shifts in policy. Or both.
The U.S. made a pledge under the Paris climate agreement to cut emissions by 2025. It also laid out broad goals for 2050.
If the United States adopted an economy-wide carbon tax similar to British Columbia’s, which started small and is set to rise to $37.50 per ton, emissions would start to fall, according to modeling by Energy Innovation, an energy policy firm.
The nation could also require utilities to produce all their electricity from zero-carbon sources — like wind, solar or nuclear — by mid-century, following states like New York and California.
Because of Norway’s aggressive electric-vehicle incentives, plug-in cars are now half of all new sales there. A similar push in the United States would curb vehicle emissions, though it would take years for millions of older cars to be retired.
China has set efficiency targets for industries like cement, steel and petrochemicals. America’s industrial sector could also make further efficiency gains using technologies available today.
Since 1978, California has set energy efficiency standards for new homes and commercial buildings that tighten as technology improves. If those stricter standards were adopted nationally, emissions from heating and cooling would decline.
The United States and Canada laid out plans in 2016 to curb methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The Trump administration has since abandoned the effort, but following through could have a noticeable impact on overall emissions.
If the United States matched the European Union’s legislation to end the use of hydrofluorocarbons, powerful greenhouse gases used in air-conditioners, refrigerators and foams, the reduction in future emissions could be significant. But we’re still only halfway to zero.
Together, these seven policies would slash greenhouse gas emissions in the United States roughly 29 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and roughly 50 percent by 2050, according to Energy Innovation’s climate policy modeling.
To put that in context, under the Paris climate agreement, the United States vowed to cut emissions at least 26 percent by 2025 and laid out a broad goal of reducing emissions 80 percent by midcentury. Assuming these policies worked as intended, they would take the country a big chunk of the way toward deep decarbonization.
These are not the only steps the United States could take to address global warming. Many of these policies would be politically tough to enact. But modeling their impact gives a sense of how far the country could, in theory, push down emissions by adopting some of the more forceful practices from around the world.
To cut emissions even more quickly and deeply, something the United Nations scientific panel has said is necessary to keep total global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the United States, along with countries like China and India, would have to go well beyond anything that has been tried to date. That could include a much higher carbon price, investing in advanced clean-energy technologies, retrofitting older buildings, tackling sectors like air travel and shipping, deploying carbon capture systems to further reduce steel and cement emissions, as well as strategies to revitalize forests and curb methane and nitrogen pollution from livestock and farming.
Energy Innovation has created an interactive policy simulator, based on their energy model, that lets you see the potential impacts of a wider array of climate policies and technological advances. One takeaway: There are no silver bullets. Pushing emissions to nearly zero would require a slew of actions to clean up nearly every corner of the American economy.