A net-zero by 2050 commitment needs an aggressive interim target

The Biden administration has signaled clear intentions to take a global leadership role on climate change and made clear that achieving net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 is a national priority. It has also proposed a range of domestic actions to put the United States on a path to meeting this ambitious goal. Next week the President will bring together world leaders for a summit on climate that seeks to reestablish U.S. global leadership.

But intentions are not enough. While the United States has stood on the sidelines over the last four years, it has fallen behind and risks further erosion of its global competitiveness. The EU, China, and other countries representing some two-thirds of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70 percent of the world economy have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century. The United Kingdom, the host of COP26, and others have further enshrined their net-zero commitments in law. Moreover, countries are beginning to set near-term targets to be consistent with a net-zero pathway. For instance, the European Union has committed to achieving emission reductions of at least 55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and is working to anchor this in legislation. In the coming weeks and months, many countries, particularly the G20, are expected to come forward with similarly ambitious targets, consistent with a mid-century net-zero goal.

On the other hand, the last four years have seen significant domestic action on climate change from outside the federal government. Hundreds of large, global companies have set their own net-zero targets in line with a 1.5°C future. Power sector emissions have fallen below those of the transportation sector, and leading utilities are no longer investing in coal, instead turning their capital investments to advanced renewables and nuclear, storage, and research on carbon capture and hydrogen. New Jersey and Virginia rejoined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in 2020, taking participation to a total of eleven states in the northeast and mid-Atlantic and reducing emissions from power plants by 47 percent over ten years. Cities and mayors have meanwhile made great strides developing resilient infrastructure, strengthening efficiency standards, purchasing more renewable energy, and electrifying vehicle fleets.

Both the international community and domestic stakeholders are looking for a clear demonstration that the administration and Congress are serious about establishing a sustainable leadership path for climate action.

After putting in place significant institutional structure and capacity in its first few months, the first real test for the Biden administration’s global leadership will be the announcement of its new nationally determined contribution (NDC), which is expected to be released by the climate leaders’ Summit on April 22.

Internationally and domestically, the expectation is that the United States will come forward with an NDC that commits to a 50 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to 2005 levels. Such a target would be ambitious, achievable with policy support and consistent with a trajectory towards net-zero emissions by 2050.

Such a target would send a clear signal to international partners that the United States will play a full part in tackling climate change and incentivize those countries that have not yet done so to come forward with their own ambitious NDCs. It would also provide clarity to states, cities, and companies as to what needs to be done in the coming years. In short, federal leadership would provide much needed motivation at home and abroad to make the transition towards net-zero.

For the world to move to a path that gives us the best chance of avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, the settled science tells us that globally we need to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This has become the benchmark against which climate action is now judged, and it is an aim that C2ES fully supports.

But putting the world on the trajectory needed to achieve that aim is extremely challenging. It will require a paradigm shift, the next industrial revolution that engages every sector of the global economy and every aspect of society. Such ambition is both possible and necessary. The path to net-zero exists, and can provide a foundation for a sustainable, prosperous and just economy in the decades to come. Moreover, there is clear evidence that the opportunities and benefits of early action far outweigh the long-term costs and impacts of inaction. If the United States does not lead the way and seize the opportunities, others will, to the United States’ long-term economic disadvantage.

The path to net-zero will require more clarity and detail than will be provided in the U.S. NDC, which will largely set out a headline commitment. The Biden administration will need to work quickly and diligently with Congress to enact domestic policies, including smart catalyzing investments and incentives. They will need to build coalitions that support the needed climate action while also providing for accountability. This leadership will provide needed certainty and build the trust and confidence and at home and abroad needed to effect real and lasting change and make the most of emerging opportunities.

C2ES has worked closely with companies to identify key pathways to net-zero though our Getting to Zero policy framework and supporting work on economy-wide decarbonization. Over the last few decades, a range of technological and policy solutions have been developed that can help achieve the ambitious and necessary near-term goals expected in the U.S. NDC. Demonstrating the courage to act on that knowledge now will determine whether we are in a position to meet mid-century goals.

The Administration’s infrastructure proposal establishes a key starting point. Investments to upgrade the electric grid, support vulnerable communities, and build critical climate-resilient infrastructure will be crucial. So will incentives to accelerate the electric vehicle transition, deploy direct air capture and carbon capture technologies, and catalyze research and development for innovation including advanced renewables, nuclear energy and battery technologies. To build on these efforts, the administration must work with companies and other stakeholders, including those that have already demonstrated a commitment to strong climate policy.

The voice and expertise of these companies can be powerful tools in pushing for domestic and global action on climate change. For more than 20 years C2ES has benefited from the perspective and constructive engagement of its Business Environmental Leadership Council, a cross sectoral group of large global companies with direct emissions amounting to at least 6 percent of U.S. emissions, representing 10 percent of U.S. GDP, and employing 3.7 million people. Fully three-quarters of these companies have set their own targets to achieve net zero emissions by midcentury or earlier. These companies also joined us as we organized 47 companies to call on the Biden administration to enact ambitious, durable and bipartisan climate policies. Many of these companies also take part in the CEO Climate Dialogue, an important business coalition C2ES also participates in.

Announcing an ambitious NDC will send an important signal to the global community as well as domestic stakeholders. It will also be an important step in providing the certainty needed to unlock private sector investments that will decarbonize the economy and create the jobs of tomorrow. But it will be just the start. To have real credibility at home and abroad, and to have positive impact, the NDC will need to be underpinned by clear plans and policies to implement it. The transition to net-zero emissions will be challenging but will also provide key opportunities for job creation and economic growth. It will also be key to leave no communities behind, to not only ensure a just future, but also to build and sustain the coalitions needed to succeed in meeting the climate challenge. The United States has the chance to set a global vision for what the world of 2050 could look like and lead the world in achieving it. C2ES is ready to work with the administration, Congress, the business community, and other stakeholders to realize that vision.