White House Releases Wishful Climate Change Plan Before Trump Takes Office

At COP 22, U.S. climate envoys lay out a vision to 'deeply decarbonize' the economy by 2050, just as a Trump presidency threatens to reverse climate progress.

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the climate delegates at COP22
In his speech at the climate summit in Marrakech, Secretary of State John Kerry said he believed the U.S. would meet its short-term climate targets despite the election of Donald Trump. Credit: Getty Images

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MARRAKECH, Morocco—The White House released an optimistic but somewhat wishful strategy for long-term climate action on Wednesday, outlining options envisioned by the lame-duck Obama administration to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

Speaking at the global climate talks, Brian Deese, the senior adviser to President Barack Obama, hedged what the mid-century report is—and is not. “It’s a long-term vision,” said Deese. “It’s not a policy prescription. It’s not a set of specific recommendations or a blueprint for any future administration.” It is also not meant to replace the country’s existing climate pledge under the Paris agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels.

According to the report, there are three ways the U.S. can “deeply decarbonize” the economy by 2050: to switch to a low-carbon energy system; to pull carbon dioxide out of the air through both natural methods such as reforestation and CO2 removal technologies; and to reduce non-carbon emissions such as methane and potent pollutants from refrigeration.

The numerical goal has been a notional target for some time, but this template has more specifics than previously offered. It is intended eventually to help shape more ambitious pledges under the fledgling Paris accord as its participants meet in Marrakech for the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22).

“The Obama Administration has taken action across all three categories of emissions, but achieving deep decarbonization will require longer-term and increasingly ambitious policy action,” the report said.

The new U.S. long-term climate strategy would bring the world closer to averting the worst impacts of climate change. That’s according to an analysis by the non-profit science group Climate Interactive. It concludes the U.S. 2050 target is in line with keeping future warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but not to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the more ambitious temperature goal of the Paris climate agreement.

Whether or not the United States can realize the future laid out in the report or a bolder one, however, is highly uncertain. Making drastic changes to the economy, as called for in this report, require a massive mobilization of finance, the support of the public and private sector and likely some technological innovation.

And the administration change in the United States complicates things further. A Donald Trump presidency threatens to not only stall the country’s efforts on climate change, but also move it in the opposite direction. The United States boasts the world’s largest economy and is the second-biggest greenhouse gas polluter after China, meaning U.S. inaction would have wide consequences.

On the campaign trail, Trump, a Republican, threatened to cancel the Paris climate agreement. He’s also called climate change a hoax. According to Trump’s transition website, his administration is looking to increase—not shrink—the United States’ fossil fuel production. Trump has also included a prominent climate contrarian, Myron Ebell, to his transition team. Another, Steve Bannon, is his top strategic adviser.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke earlier on Wednesday in Marrakech, expressed confidence that the U.S. could meet its short-term climate goals under the future administration simply due to market forces that have already driven down costs of renewable energy substantially.

“I can tell you with confidence that the United States is right now, today, on our way to meeting all of the international targets that we’ve set,” said Kerry, “and because of the market decisions that are being made, I do not believe that that can or will be reversed.”

But despite that optimism, Kerry expressed urgency about the need for all countries, including the U.S., to take more action. “The world is already changing at an increasingly alarming rate with increasingly alarming consequences,” said Kerry. “At some point, even the strongest skeptic has to acknowledge that something disturbing is happening.”

Kerry’s speech did not directly mention the U.S. long-term climate plan, however.

The 111-page strategy provides several alternative scenarios for the U.S. to meet the target and an additional, more ambitious path to achieve emission cuts beyond 80 percent.

These show the wide range of ways the U.S. can meet the long-term target. For example, one option relies strongly on natural sources of carbon sinks such as forests, combined with agricultural practices that boost soil carbon storage, while another relies heavily on technological innovation to pull carbon out of the air.

According to Deese, the most efficient and cost-effective approach to ramp down emissions requires across-the-board reductions, from transportation to energy to land use.

The U.S. could make progress in energy emissions by doubling investment in clean energy and expanding state and local policies to promote renewable energy, the report says.

There are also big opportunities “to up our game in emissions reduction and negative emissions from our land sector,” said Deese. American lands were already a greenhouse gas emissions sink, offsetting about 11 percent of economy-wide emissions in 2014. There’s a potential to increase that to 45 percent of economy-wide emissions in 2050, the report suggested.

“While the 2050 plan is a good start, we will need to aim for deeper emission reductions to reach net zero emissions by mid-century,” said Rachel Cleetus of the science advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists. “Whether or not President-elect Trump embraces this vision, it provides a solid template for action by future administrations, as well as states, cities and other nations also considering their long-term climate and energy plans.”

Canada and Mexico also released their mid-century reports on Wednesday. Germany was the first country to release its long-term climate action plan on Monday.