Last November, President Obama stood in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping — and made history.
The leaders of the world’s two largest economies — and two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases — surprised the global community by jointly announcing their plans to combat one of the biggest threats facing the world this century: Climate change.
China, for the first time, committed to a specific date for “peaking” their emissions — and showed how they would get there by also pledging to build more zero-carbon energy generation than they currently have in coal power. President Obama announced that the United States would build on the historic progress we’ve already made to cut carbon pollution and protect public health by reducing emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
Today, the United States followed through on that joint announcement by officially submitting our target — or “intended nationally determined contribution,” in the jargon of the international climate negotiations — to the UNFCCC.
The World Is Acting to Take On Climate Change
With today’s submission of the U.S. target, countries accounting for more than half of total carbon pollution from the energy sector have submitted or announced what they will do in the post-2020 period to combat climate change.
That includes Mexico, our close economic partner, which set a high standard of ambition for similar countries when they became the first emerging economy to submit their climate target to the UN, committing last Friday to peak their greenhouse gas emissions across their economy by 2026.
That’s a big deal, because truly global challenges demand global solutions. Climate change is real, it is being driven by human activity, and it is not a problem any one country can solve on its own.
The United States Is Leading the Charge
The United States’ target is ambitious and achievable, and we have the tools we need to reach it. The goal will roughly double the pace at which we’re reducing carbon pollution through cost-effective measures using laws already on the books.
What does that mean in practice? In our formal submission to the UN, we lay out several of the policies we are already using to achieve this goal, including the President’s historic fuel economy standards for cars, trucks, and heavy-duty vehicles; energy efficiency measures for buildings and appliances; and programs to phase down the potent climate pollutants known as HFCs, which have up to 10,000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
We also highlight ongoing activities that will further reduce our greenhouse gas emissions — including upcoming rules to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants, the single-biggest source of U.S. emissions.
These policies deliver real benefits to the American people. The President’s fuel economy standards mean our cars can go twice as far on a gallon of gas, and because of higher efficiency and lower gas prices, drivers will save an average of $750 at the pump this year. When fully implemented, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan will prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 juvenile asthma attacks annually.
We Have the Tools We Need to Act on Climate
The fact is, we can take on climate change, grow the economy, and create more jobs and opportunity for the American people at the same time. Over the last eight years, we’ve cut more carbon pollution than any other country and brought our economy back from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, creating more than 12 million jobs over 60 straight months of job growth — the longest streak on record. Since the EPA was established four decades ago, we’ve cut air pollution by 70 percent while our GDP has tripled.
We’re seeing encouraging trends in the global economy, too. For more than four decades, carbon pollution from the energy sector rose alongside increases in global GDP. The only periods where carbon emissions didn’t increase corresponded to periods of economic weakness. Until last year. In an historic but underreported shift, carbon pollution from the energy sector was flat from 2013 to 2014 — even as the global economy grew by 3 percent.
That’s a big deal, and is yet another sign that we have the tools we need to tackle climate change head-on. The IEA attributed last year’s flat-lining of carbon pollution from the energy sector to new policies in places like China, the EU and the United States — as we deploy more clean energy, use less dirty energy, and use less energy overall, while still growing the economy and creating jobs.
Clean energy is key to climate action — and there’s good news on that front, too. During the President’s time in office, the United States has tripled the amount of energy we get from wind and increased solar generation more than tenfold. And renewable energy is getting more affordable. The cost of solar in particular is declining rapidly, and we’re on track to achieve a central goal of the President’s SunShot initiative — to reduce the total installed cost of solar energy systems to 6 cents per kilowatt hour by 2020. In addition to being a historic moment of shared ambition, the U.S.-China joint announcement last November served a powerful market signal for these technologies — that the world’s two largest energy users will continue their increased investment in low-carbon and zero-carbon energy solutions.
The Time for Climate Action Is Now
Most challenges arise suddenly, with little warning. Climate change is different. For decades, we’ve known why global average temperatures are rising, why greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, why the oceans are warming and weather patterns are growing more extreme. For decades, we’ve known what we need to do to address this threat, and to prevent our children from inheriting a planet that is damaged beyond their capacity to repair. Over time, the warning signs have grown more alarming. 2014 was the hottest year on record. 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have come in this century. Ice sheets are melting, the seas are rising, snow packs are diminishing, and communities around the world have been battered by severe storms.
It’s past time we heed these warnings. It’s past time for the world to take action. Under President Obama’s leadership, the United States is doing our part to take on this global challenge. It’s time for other countries to do what the United States, Mexico, and the E.U. members have done and submit timely, transparent, measurable, and above all ambitious targets for cutting carbon pollution and building lower-carbon economies to the UNFCCC. In the meantime, the President will seize every opportunity to make progress on climate change at home and on the international stage — as we look toward forging a global agreement on climate change in Paris this December and beyond.
Brian Deese is Senior Advisor to President Obama.