On Nov. 1, 2021, at the start of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, the White House issued two strategies to address climate change, one at home and one abroad.
The first, titled "The Long-term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050," has its goal embedded in the document's lengthy title. The second, "President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE)," is designed to support vulnerable developing countries and communities around the world as they attempt to manage the impacts of climate change. Here are the two announced strategies in greater detail.
- In conjunction with COP26, the United States has issued two strategies to achieve domestic net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and to provide climate support for vulnerable developing countries by 2030.
- The strategies are not legislation but rather a framework by which the White House, Congress, and other entities can focus on achieving specific goals.
- Net-zero emissions is a state in which there is a balance between greenhouse gases released and those taken out of the atmosphere.
- The Long-Term Strategy calls for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or specified targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
- PREPARE, through USAID, lays out a three-phase plan to achieve its goals.
The Long-Term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions by 2050
Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in less than three decades is a lofty goal for any nation. Given the state of our atmosphere, let alone the political climate in the U.S., many would say net zero is an unreachable goal. Others say that given the right plan and commitment it can be done.
The Meaning of Net-Zero Emissions
"Net-zero" emissions refer to a balance between GHGs produced and those taken out of the atmosphere. This is not the same as "zero emissions," a state in which no greenhouse gases would be released at all. Zero emissions would be too expensive or disruptive to life on Earth to achieve in any practical sense.
With net-zero emissions, some greenhouse gases are released but they are offset by removing an equal amount of GHGs from the atmosphere and storing them in soil, plants, or other materials. According to experts, even net-zero emissions will not be enough. Eventually, governments will need to tip beyond net-zero to repair past damage.
According to climate experts, achieving net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 will not solve the problem of climate change. Eventually, they say, governments will need to ramp up beyond net-zero to repair past damage.
A Targeted Timeline for Net-Zero 2050
To reach net-zero by 2050 will require a carefully orchestrated step-by-step plan with achievable goals along the way. Cynthia Elliott, from the Global Climate Program at the World Resources Institute says this: "In broad strokes, the [net-zero] strategy sets out the right expectation of covering all sectors and all GHGs, a clear target year, and concrete interim milestones, but there's a lot to still watch."
Following are the primary milestones the Net-Zero 2050 strategy hopes to accomplish. The timeline and milestones are based on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or target reductions in GHGs by the United States over the next three decades. The NDCs reflect the targeted percentage of GHG emissions below the peak year for GHG emissions, 2005.
2025 NDC: 26-28% Below 2005 GHGs
The 2025 target of 26-28% fewer emissions than in 2005 was set by the Obama administration in 2015. At that time, then-President Obama and China's President Xi, leaders of the two largest economies and polluters on the planet, announced an agreement to curb or slow down emissions. China's much less ambitious commitment was to peak emissions around 2030 and begin to utilize up to 20% of non-fossil energy by 2030.
2030 NDC: 50-52% Below 2005 GHGs
The NDC target for 2030 is set at 50% to 52% below 2005 levels. The decade 2020 to 2030 is deemed crucial and requires the U.S. to deliver on new policies including:
- Accelerating existing emissions reduction trends
- Expanding rapidly the deployment of new technologies such as electric vehicles and heat pumps
- Building the infrastructure for key systems such as our national power grid
100% Clean Electricity by 2035
While not a NDC target, this goal will be critical to support decarbonization in the electricity sector and help the U.S. reach its 2030 and 2050 NDC goals.
2050 NDC: 100% Below 2005 GHGs (Net Zero)
The ultimate NDC target of 100% lower emissions than 2005, effectively net-zero emissions, will be achieved, the Biden administration says, by:
- Decarbonization of electricity (by 2035)
- Electrifying end-use and switching to other clean fuels
- Cutting energy waste
- Reducing methane and other non-CO2 emissions
- Scaling-up CO2 removal
President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE)
At the same time "Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions by 2050" was released, a companion strategy called the "President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE)" was also announced. The purpose of this plan is to support developing countries and communities in vulnerable situations around the world in their efforts to adapt to and manage the impacts of climate change.
In announcing the framework, the White House said, "The President will work with Congress to provide $3 billion in adaptation finance annually for PREPARE by FY2024. It is the largest U.S. commitment ever made to reduce climate impacts on those most vulnerable to climate change worldwide."
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will help PREPARE to achieve its goals by 2030 by:
- Mobilizing $1 billion in public and private finance for water and sanitation services by 2030
- Launching the Green Recovery Investment Platform to encourage climate investments
- Investing $100 million over five years for sustainable conservation of forests
- Contributing $21.8 million to disaster risk financing in Africa
- Supporting vulnerable countries around the world with their adaptation priorities
- Shoring up climate adaptation and resilience in Central America
- Training local climate forecasters and leaders to predict climate hazards
- Supporting partner countries in achieving their climate-resilience commitments
- Working with partner countries to adapt programs to respond to shifting rainfall patterns
Experts Weigh In on the Strategies
While largely applauding the goals outlined in the new White House strategy, climate experts caution that there are challenges to be met.
“The new long-term strategy shows that net-zero is achievable in the U.S., but will require bold, immediate action," says Elliott. "A positive first step would be for Congress to pass ambitious legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions and deliver on our pledge to halve emissions by 2030, and to ramp up research and development funding across the power, transport, buildings, industry, and land sectors, as well as technology-based carbon removal.”
Regarding US utilities’ 2035 net-zero decarbonization targets, Julia Giguere-Morello, executive director and head of Americas Core ESG and Climate Research at MSCI says, "Following an MSCI analysis of public decarbonization targets, we’ve estimated that only five U.S. utility companies (12% of power generators) plan to reach a near-zero carbon intensity for their electricity generation by 2035."
On actions the oil and gas industry needs to take to lower methane emissions, Giguere-Morello says, “Methane is a problem for the whole oil and gas industry and it’s entirely solvable. The necessary equipment and technology already exist to eliminate most of the industry’s methane and flaring problems, and necessary actions are low-cost in most cases, but companies have so far decided to invest elsewhere. Overall, voluntary action has done little to stop the problem.”
Achieving Net-Zero By 2050
The release of the strategies on Nov. 1 is only the first step. The path to funding and implementation lies mostly through Congress. With the passage of federal climate-related legislation still up in the air, the strategies are primarily guidelines.
While the strategies make it clear that the path forward will be difficult and will require almost unprecedented international cooperation, details contained in the plans show that the goals are not only achievable but desirable.
As "Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050" notes, achieving net-zero avoids 85,000 to 300,000 premature deaths; $1 trillion to $3 trillion in damages through 2050 in the United States alone; propels "sustained growth” and leadership by the U.S. in battery, electric vehicle, and heat pump technologies“; and even provides national security benefits by driving down the costs of carbon-free technologies and helping reduce geopolitical tensions.
Where Do Most Greenhouse Gases Come From?
Most greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. The Biden Administration's "Long Term Strategy" calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. to net-zero by 2050.
What Is the Biden Administration's PREPARE Strategy?
The PREPARE strategy is a plan to support developing countries and communities in vulnerable situations around the world in their efforts to adapt to and manage the impacts of climate change.
What Is Climate Change?
Climate change is the long-term alteration of temperature and weather caused by human activity such as burning fossil fuels which releases greenhouse gases into the Earth's atmosphere where they trap heat from the sun, raising the planet's temperature.