US Commitment Under Paris Agreement: the NDC Explained

Cityscape with trees and solar panel -Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC

What is an NDC?

A Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC, is a set of targets, measures and policies for reducing a country’s greenhouse gas emissions and addressing its climate impacts. In the lead-up to the Paris UN climate talks in 2015, almost every country in the world submitted an NDC.

The Paris Agreement set an expectation that countries would submit new NDCs every five years. National governments are expected to strengthen their climate pledges on this cycle – and officially communicate with each other their plans to do so – with an aim to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C , preferably to 1.5°C, below industrial levels. While the submission of an NDC is a legal obligation under the Paris Agreement, achievement of the emissions target is not legally binding or enforceable. 

The US set its first NDC in March 2015, the broad strokes of which were negotiated in a November 2014 joint announcement with China, one year ahead of the Paris summit and established a goal of reducing emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

What should we expect from the next US NDC? 

The last round of NDCs was due at the end of 2020, at the time former President Trump had technically withdrawn the US from the Paris Agreement. President Biden moved to rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. While one of his first climate executive orders called for the US to reach net zero emissions by no later than 2050, the Biden administration has yet to set shorter-term greenhouse gas reduction targets. 

The Biden administration will release the next US NDC, committing to a 2030 emissions reduction target, on or before it hosts the Leaders Summit on Climate, featuring up to 40 heads of state, on April 22-23, 2021. This announcement is expected to include the numerical emissions reduction target, plans for how to get there will be developed in the months before climate negotiations this November in Glasgow. 

The new NDC is key to the work of John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, as he engages with foreign leaders. Kerry’s team is working closely with Gina McCarthy, Head of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, as her team leads the development of the NDC itself. 

How ambitious a target will be established in the next US NDC?

The next US NDC will be a crucial step in communicating, domestically and internationally, the climate ambition of the Biden administration. While the US federal government retreated on climate action during the Trump administration, many other countries increased expectations for ambition especially from the world’s wealthiest nations and largest carbon polluters. 

A range of environmental groups, analysts, city, state, and business leaders, public health experts, and other voices across the US are urging the Biden administration to deliver an NDC committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% or more by 2030 (from 2005 levels), calling it a politically feasible target that has the potential to transform our economy, invest in a healthier more equitable future, and catalyze a transition that will deliver even greater reductions. 

Other environmental advocates are pushing for greater emissions cuts. The US Climate Action Network has called for the US to cut its own carbon emissions by at least 70% by 2030 and to counteract its historical contribution to climate change by going further to support developing countries’ transition to clean energy and manage the impacts of climate change – providing enough support to slash emissions by up to 125% abroad. An analysis from Climate Action Tracker finds that, in order to help limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the US should cut emissions 57-63% by 2030,  and provide support to other countries to cut their emissions. 

What does cutting emissions 50% by 2030 from 2005 levels look like?

Cutting US carbon pollution in half by 2030 from 2005 levels would involve economy-wide changes. It can be achieved through a blend of regulation, legislation and clean energy incentives, alongside accelerated action by cities, states, businesses, and other US non-federal actors. 

While the Biden administration develops its climate target and plans to get there, many environmental groups have also published feasibility analyses, showing multiple and cost-effective pathways for the US to reduce emissions 50% or more by 2030, from 2005 levels: 

The modeling approaches vary, with some factoring in possible Congressional action and others focusing on what can be achieved using executive authority combined with continued city and state action. In the near term, the Biden administration has laid out its infrastructure package in the American Jobs Plan, intended to revitalize the economy, rebuild outdated infrastructure, and create millions of new union jobs. Several of the policy approaches outlined in the American Jobs Plan align with the models showing pathways to achieve 50% emissions cuts by 2030, including investing over $200 billion to build and retrofit more than 2 million homes, building a national network of 500,000 EV chargers by 2030, electrifying the federal fleet, and proposing a clean electricity standard to reach 100% carbon-free power by 2035. 

These models do not assume a massive climate lift from Congress. Passing components of the American Jobs Plan, such as a clean energy standard or clean energy tax incentives, would be a significant boost to domestic emissions cuts. However, the models showing the many ways to cut emissions 50% rely largely on federal action, like initiatives already announced through the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, combined with scaled-up state, city, and business leadership.

Here are some elements that a pathway to at least a 50% emissions reduction by 2030 could include:

  • Significantly increasing zero-carbon electricity – According to NRDC, 80% of electricity should be sourced from wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear, and the coal-fired power plant fleet could be fully retired, by 2030 to reach 50% emissions reductions. Beyond increasing clean energy capacity, modelling by both Energy Innovation and University of Maryland also assumes the US will largely stop coal generation by 2030 and make major progress reducing gas-fired electricity as well, thereby also reducing methane emissions. A policy package to achieve this would likely need to include strong carbon and pollution standards on power plants, an ambitious clean energy standard, clean energy tax incentives, and federal support to build out electricity transmission infrastructure.  
  • Building electrification – The University of Maryland’s model includes the government combining incentives and building standards to ensure over half of the appliances in buildings used for heating and cooking are powered by clean energy, rather than running on gas or oil. Energy Innovation emphasizes that, because appliances can last up to 20 years, ensuring an all-electric building stock by 2050 means all new equipment must be electric by 2030. NRDC’s analysis assumes nearly 100% of water heating equipment sold for buildings by 2030 is electric. Building electrification can support over 100,000 jobs and results in cleaner indoor air and significant savings in utility costs for new, all-electric, single-family homes. This is particularly important for low-income, African American, and Latino households, who bear an energy cost burden three times as high as other households. Setting high efficiency appliance standards can also save consumers money in the long-term. 
  • Prioritizing other greenhouse gases – Methane emissions have surged globally, coinciding with expanded U.S. production and use of natural gas, and an ambitious NDC can be achieved in part by cutting economy-wide methane emissions 40% by 2030. This could entail setting methane standards for new and existing oil and gas operations, and establishing a federal program potential to plug orphan wells that would create tens of thousands of jobs, potentially as many as 120,000, to help transition oil and gas workers. Additional steps include curbing methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture through improved practices (think: smarter handling of cow manure and more efficient fertilizer use) and phasing out climate-damaging hydrofluorocarbons from refrigeration systems. 
  • Transition to zero-emissions vehicles – EDF’s model on how the US could achieve this kind of climate target rests in part on setting vehicle standards to make sure all cars sold in the US by 2035 are zero-emitting, with only zero-emitting all freight trucks and buses sold in the US by 2040. A number of policies can support that transition, such as “cash for clunkers” incentives to encourage consumers to trade in their polluting car models, and supporting manufacturing and production of batteries within the US. Reducing transportation emissions can also save lives – simply eliminating pollution from vehicles on the road could prevent over 150,000 premature deaths by 2050.
  • Pricing carbon – Tackling emissions sector-by-sector is doable, but setting an economy-wide limit and price on carbon could help the US achieve a 50% emissions cut more quickly and affordably. This would incentivize polluting sectors to prioritize the cheapest and quickest emissions reductions first, while raising significant revenue that could be directed towards promoting equity, supporting workers and communities in the clean economy transition, and investing in innovation and emerging technologies. A power-sector carbon price could assist the phase-out of coal, according to Energy Innovation and University of Maryland.
  • Sinking carbon – The studies vary on whether they assume carbon will be drawn out of the atmosphere and into the soil. University of Maryland’s analysis includes investing in protecting and expanding the US’s farmland, forests, and grasslands, which could absorb 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide by 2030 (for reference: a gigaton weighs more than 6 million blue whales). NRDC’s model includes strong regulations to protect older forests that store a lot of carbon, and improving agricultural policy to increase soil carbon on farms and ranches. Reforestation and increasing soil carbon have numerous benefits, including protection against floods and droughts, improved soil fertility, and cleaner community water sources.