U.S. President Joe Biden pledged on April 22—Earth Day—that by the end of 2030, the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half from emissions levels in 2005. It’s unclear, though, whether Biden will be able to push through any new climate rules and laws. In his speech to world leaders announcing the pledge, he didn’t propose any specific measures. He had previously called for building 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles by 2030, for example, but any new spending would have to be approved by Congress, where the Democrats don’t hold enough seats in the Senate to overcome potential Republican obstruction. How likely is it that the U.S. will reach Biden's climate goals?

George David Banks is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, was recently the chief Republican strategist on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and was also a climate advisor to Presidents Donald Trump and George W. Bush. To Banks, it’s highly unlikely that Biden can get policies in place to cut emissions in half from 2005 levels. Biden’s executive actions are certain to wind up in court, and the Republicans expect to win back the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections. Still, as Banks sees it, many Republican politicians now take climate change seriously and support government action to reduce emissions and create a greener economy. Democrats and Republicans, he says, could end up cooperating effectively on research investments, infrastructure, transportation electrification, trade policy, and more.

Michael Bluhm: How realistic is Biden’s pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030?

George David Banks: It would be very, very difficult.

Let’s talk about the numbers, because a lot of people don’t appreciate what we’re looking at. In President Biden’s baseline year, 2005, U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions stood at roughly 6 gigatons. Last year, U.S. carbon dioxide pollution fell by 11 percent because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, U.S. CO2 emissions are tracking a rebound, with estimated levels of about 4.8 gigatons. By the end of 2030, the U.S. would need to cut somewhere between 0.2 and 0.24 gigatons of energy-related CO2 each year to get to that target. That’s pretty tough.

To put that into perspective, we’ve only managed to reach that level of emissions reduction during COVID-19 and during the Great Recession of 2009. Otherwise, the U.S. has never reduced emissions by that much in in a single year. If we look at the years the U.S. economy grew since 2005, the U.S. has achieved an average emissions reduction rate of less than 0.1 gigatons; it’s around 0.06 gigatons.

It’s a far cry from the level of annual reductions needed to achieve the target. So yes, I’m skeptical.

Even if the president is really successful in pushing forward regulations, and even if the Congress is able to adopt an ambitious climate legislative agenda, it’s going to take several years for those emissions reductions to be realized, suggesting that, in order to make up for a slow start in reducing CO2 emissions in the early years of this decade, you’re going to have to have a much greater reduction per year toward the end of the decade. Then you’re looking at emissions reductions that are probably close to the COVID range, which was about a 0.5-gigaton reduction in 2020.

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Bluhm: When Biden made his pledge, he didn’t provide policy specifics. Setting aside whatever gains are happening—or might happen—in the private sector, can government action alone accomplish Biden’s emissions goals?

Banks: No, at least not in a way that’s consistent with economic growth. Not in a way that’s politically viable. We clearly don’t have the technology today to achieve those type of reductions.

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