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The US has a long way to go to make up for its part in the climate crisis

The US has a long way to go to make up for its part in the climate crisis


Its shiny new climate goal might not go far enough

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President Biden Delivers Remarks And Signs Executive Actions On Climate Change And Creating Jobs
US President Joe Biden prepares to sign executive orders after speaking about climate change issues in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 27th, 2021, in Washington, DC. Biden signed several executive orders related to the climate change crisis. Also pictured, left to right, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and US Vice President Kamala Harris.
Photo by Anna Moneymaker-Pool / Getty Images

The US plans to officially ratchet up its climate commitments going into Earth Day tomorrow, but many advocates are skeptical that it will be ambitious enough to balance out the nation’s inordinate role in creating the climate crisis. 

“No possible ethically justifiable story in which the United States does not do more”

Biden is expected to commit the US to slashing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least half compared to what they were in 2005. That’s already a significant ramp-up compared to the trajectory the US was on before. (Barack Obama committed the US to a roughly 27 percent cut by 2025.) But there’s still somewhat of a mismatch between what the US is willing to commit to and what some say it owes to the rest of the world. 

“There exists in my mind no possible ethically justifiable story in which the United States does not do more,” says Tom Athanasiou, executive director of the activist think tank EcoEquity. 

Two specific targets have emerged as rallying calls since a landmark United Nations 2018 report set out pathways to achieving the goals set in Paris: global emissions should reach net zero around 2050 and drop in about half compared to 2010 levels this decade. (While the United Nations report uses a 2010 baseline for pollution cuts, different countries use different years. The US uses 2005, around the time that its emissions peaked.) Biden’s been talking about reaching that 2050 goal domestically since he was on the campaign trail. Since then, hundreds of companies and some mainstream environmental groups have called for him to commit to the 2030 target, too. 

But others say that target falls short and that the US should do much more because of how much fossil fuel pollution it’s created. China is currently the country that releases the most carbon dioxide emissions each year, so it also has a lot of responsibility. But cumulatively, the US has pumped out nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as China since 1750. Even today, the US’s modern per capita emissions are more than double that of China’s.

That’s why Athanasiou, and the Climate Action Network that he’s part of, say that the US’s “fair share” of the work to address the climate crisis is much higher than the 50 percent reduction target for this decade. “If there’s a global average number, and you’re doing something fair, then the United States has to do more than the global average. End of story,” he says.

The US’s “fair share” of the work

They’re asking the US to slash its emissions by 70 percent. The Climate Action Network also says the US has the responsibility and financial capacity to help developing nations with their emissions cuts. 

Another independent analysis found that for Biden to hit his aspiration of net zero emissions by 2050 and help the rest of the world do the same, he needs to up the ante. The US should slash pollution by between 57 to 63 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, according to the analysis by the nonprofit organizations NewClimate Institute and Climate Analytics. It also said that the US would need to support other countries’ efforts to lower emissions.

So far, the US seems to be falling short when it comes to investing in pollution cuts elsewhere. An important piece of the Paris agreement is a Green Climate Fund established to help developing countries transition to clean energy. The Obama administration committed $3 billion to the fund but was only able to fulfill about $1 billion of it. Donald Trump then pulled the US out of the agreement and reneged on the remaining funds. When Biden recommitted the US to Paris, many thought he would follow through — and maybe even put down more cash. But they were disappointed earlier this month when the president’s budget proposal only laid out an additional $1.2 billion for the fund — not even enough to make up for what Trump had previously backed out of. 

The world is teetering ever closer to catastrophe

The US has a long way to go to show the world that it is actually serious about tackling the crisis again. When the US helped strike the Paris climate agreement in 2015, it promised, along with all of the other signatories, that in five years, it would submit even more ambitious commitments to tackle climate change. 

Those five years are up. Now, the world is teetering ever closer to catastrophe: it’s already heated by 1.2 degrees Celsius, close to the 1.5 degree threshold that the Paris agreement hoped to avoid. That’s why people around the world are holding their breath to learn what governments’ new commitments are. Of the almost 200 countries that signed the accord, some 80 have already turned in their homework. Notably, the two top greenhouse gas polluters, China and the US, have not. 

“Many countries around the globe that are kind of hiding and saying, ‘Okay, we don’t move forward because we don’t see that the big economies are moving forward,’” says Gustavo de Vivero, a climate policy analyst at the NewClimate Institute and one of the authors of its recent analysis. “It’s extremely important [that the Biden administration] show commitment, show that it’s possible to go as high as possible.”