On 22 April 2021, international Earth Day, Joe Biden hosted heads of States at a climate summit, announcing a new climate goal of the United States under the Paris Agreement. In Europe, in the early morning hours of the same day, negotiators from governments, the European Commission and the European Parliament agreed on a compromise for the EU’s climate goal for 2030. What do these targets mean in terms of actual emission reductions? And do they represent comparable efforts?
The return of the US to the Paris Agreement and the pledge of a new climate target are incredibly important milestones for both the climate and international climate diplomacy. In its new “national determined contribution (NDC)” under the Paris Agreement, the US committed to reducing emissions in 2030 by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels. Getting the US on board was crucial: the US is still the second largest emitter after China, and its per-capita emissions are more than twice as large as in Europe. The new commitment of the Biden administration and the climate diplomacy around the summit has already encouraged other countries to step up their efforts: the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan and even Brazil are some of the countries that have considerably increased their climate ambition around the event.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the EU agreed on a target of reducing emissions in 2030 by 55 percent below 1990 level. This target level was agreed by heads of States in December 2020, while the European Parliament targeted a reduction of 60 percent. The adopted target, however, is a considerable enhancement of the EU’s existing target of reducing emissions by 40 percent over the same period.
But what do these targets mean and are they comparable?
First, both targets require the current annual rate of reductions to be scaled up considerably. In the EU, emissions decreased by 1.6 percentage points per year in the period 2005 to 2018. With the new target, this pace of reductions needs to increase to about 2.5 percentage points per year over the next ten years. In the US, emissions declined by 0.8 percentage points per year in the period 2005 to 2018. To achieve its new 2030 target, the US will have to reduce emissions by about 3.3 percentage points per year – a considerably larger annual cut compared to the EU.
The two targets use different starting years, referred to as ‘base’ years, from which the reductions are counted. The EU uses 1990 as base year, and the European emissions declined more or less continuously from 1990. The US uses 2005 as base year. The US emissions increased between 1990 and 2007 and declined thereafter. So, what do the EU and US targets mean if the same base year was used? The EU target corresponds to a reduction of about 51 percent compared to 2005 levels – the same level as the US pledge of a 50-52 percent reduction. And the US target corresponds to a reduction of 43-45 percent compared to 1990 levels. This is a lower number than the new EU target of a 55 percent reduction but some of the EU reductions in the 1990s occurred due to the economic restructuring in eastern Europe.
A remarkable part of the US efforts is the goal of reducing emissions from electricity generation to zero by 2035. If this goal is achieved, the US would be considerably faster than the Europe in decarbonizing the power sector.
Both the US and the EU target include the uptake of CO2 from the land-use sector. The net CO2 sink from forests and soils in the US in recent years stayed rather constant compared to the 2005 base year. The inclusion of sinks in the climate target therefore provides an incentive for additional efforts to increase the uptake of CO2 in soils and forests. The EU has limited the accounting of removals from natural sinks to 225 million tons in the 2030 target. This is equivalent to the current target under the LULUCF Regulation which shall ensure that in the EU the land use sector does not turn from a CO2 sink to a CO2 source. Compared to the actual EU sink of 263 million tons, this means a reduction of the EU’s CO2 sequestration in soils and forests.
The US and EU targets will require considerable upscaling mitigation efforts. This year, Earth Day was a true milestone towards addressing climate change. What matters now is ambitious and effective policies to implement these targets. As we say in German: paper is patient, but the climate is not.
This article was first published on the blog of the Oeko-Institut.