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What is The United Statesʼ pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C?

Last update: June 2021

Ambition gap

The United Statesʼ total GHG emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂e/yr

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Displayed values
Reference year
−100%−80%−60%−40%−20%0%19902010203020502070
Reference year
2005
1.5°C emissions level
−60%
NDC
−50%
Ambition gap
−10%
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Current policy projections
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Historical emissions

*Net zero emissions excl LULUCF is achieved through deployment of BECCS; other novel CDR is not included in these pathways

Summary

In 2021, President Biden announced a strengthened domestic emission reduction target of 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, including land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF), which translates to 3.7-4.2 GtCO₂e/yr by 2030, or 43-50% below 2005 levels, excluding LULUCF.

1 Climate Action Tracker. To show climate leadership, US 2030 target should be at least 57-63% – Mar 2021. (2021).

2 Biden for President. The Biden plan to build a modern, sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future. (2020).

3 Climate Action Tracker. USA | Climate Action Tracker. (2021).

4 The United States of America. The United States of America – Nationally Determined Contribution. (2021) doi:10.4337/9781781006122.00009.

5 NCSL. State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals. (2020).

6 Barbose, G. U.S. Renewables Portfolio Standards 2019 Annual Status Update.

7 Climate Action Tracker. United States of America. CAT July 2020 Update. (2020).

8 Gopinathan, N., Subramanian, N. S. & Urpelainen, J. Mid-Century Strategies: pathways to a low-carbon future? Clim. Policy 19, 1088–1101 (2019).

9 While global cost-effective pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report 1.5°C provide useful guidance for an upper-limit of emissions trajectories for developed countries, they underestimate the feasible space for such countries to reach net zero earlier. The current generation of models tend to depend strongly on land-use sinks outside of currently developed countries and include fossil fuel use well beyond the time at which these could be phased out, compared to what is understood from bottom-up approaches. The scientific teams which provide these global pathways constantly improve the technologies represented in their models – and novel CDR technologies are now being included in new studies focused on deep mitigation scenarios meeting the Paris Agreement. A wide assessment database of these new scenarios is not yet available; thus, we rely on available scenarios which focus particularly on BECCS as a net-negative emission technology. Accordingly, we do not yet consider land-sector emissions (LULUCF) and other CDR approaches which developed countries will need to implement in order to counterbalance their remaining emissions and reach net zero GHG are not considered here due to data availability.

10 In some of the analysed pathways, the energy sector assumes already a certain amount of carbon dioxide removal technologies, in this case bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

11 When considering historical LULUCF sinks (-765 MtCO₂e in average between 2008-2018). The Mid-Century Strategy projects a level of LULUCF sinks of -409 MtCO₂e by 2050 which would lead to net zero GHGs by 2056.7,8

This updated domestic target falls short of 1.5°C compatibility, which would require the US to target emissions reductions of 60% (55-66%) below 2005 levels, resulting in emissions of 2.9 (2.5-3.3) GtCO₂e/yr by 2030, excluding LULUCF emissions.

A fair share contribution to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions compatible with the Paris Agreement would require the US to go further than its domestic target, and provide substantial support for emission reductions to developing countries. The US’ fair share (domestic and international support) would require the country to finance or provide support for mitigation abroad equivalent to domestic emissions reductions of at least 75% below 2005 levels by 2030 when excluding LULUCF on top of its domestic reductions.1

President Biden has announced plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050. This would mean the US’ remaining emissions in 2050 would need to be within a range of 0.8 GtCO₂e/yr, or a reduction of 90-96% below 2005 levels excluding land sinks, but including the use of BECCS.9,10

The US would need to balance the remaining emissions through the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) approaches. Our analysis shows that, assuming LULUCF sinks remain at current levels, net zero GHGs could be achieved by 2057, and net zero CO₂ by 2052.11

Achievement of net zero CO₂ before mid-century requires rapid decarbonisation in the power sector, as this is a catalyst for decarbonisation of other sectors. Reductions in the transport and industry sectors would also need to be prioritised as they are significant contributors to US emissions.

Power

Key power sector benchmarks

Renewables shares and year of zero emissions power Including the use of BECCS

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1.5°C aligned targets
Current targets

To align to a 1.5°C compatible pathway, the share of renewable energy in the US power mix would need to ramp up from 17% in 2017 to 77-93% by 2030, and 98-100% by 2050.

Early decarbonisation of the power sector will be necessary to close the emissions gap in 2030, requiring a reduction in carbon intensity from around 430 gCO₂/kWh in 2017 to 30-50 gCO₂/kWh by 2030.

Phasing out coal by 2029 and gas by 2038-2039, respectively will enable the required transformation. Considering the long lifetimes and decreasing competitiveness of coal and gas power plants, delaying decarbonisation comes with significant risks of stranded assets to investors, as well as risks to society of locking in high-cost, high-emission technologies.

Footnotes