President Biden has set a new nationally determined contribution (NDC) for the U.S. to achieve a 50% to 52% reduction in economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2030 compared to 2005 levels. 

The White House said on Thursday the NDC, which was determined after a “a whole-of-government process”  organized through the Biden administration’s National Climate Task Force, will be formally submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  

The announcement during the U.S-organized Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22 is a notable international declaration that marks a formal re-entry into the Paris agreement and serves to re-establish an obligation to act concertedly to mitigate climate change in an effort to limit the global average temperature rise in this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. 

Biden kickstarted America’s return to the Paris Agreement hours after his inauguration on Jan. 20, just weeks after President Trump’s formal withdrawal from the international accord. President Obama formally entered the U.S. into the accord through executive authority (under international law) in September 2016, setting a target to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. When Trump withdrew the U.S., only the U.S. and Syria had not endorsed the agreement after the UN adopted it in December 2015. So far, 189 countries have formally ratified, accepted, or approved the agreement. 

The new U.S. NDC follows a string of more ambitious climate goals announced by countries that, like the U.S., rely heavily on coal and gas generation to fuel their economies. 

In September, the European Union proposed a 55% cut in GHG emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, a move the European Commission said would put the EU on a “balanced pathway to reaching climate neutrality by 2050.” China’s President Xi Jinping on Sept. 22 told the UN General Assembly that his country would strive to be carbon-neutral by 2060. In October, Japan’s newly appointed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged that the island nation will be carbon-neutral in 2050. In October, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in also announced a net-zero target, committing to “go toward carbon neutral by 2050” in a speech to the national assembly.

Development of the NDC

According to the White House, the NDC was developed “relying on a detailed bottom-up analysis that reviewed technology availability, current costs, and future cost reductions, as well as the role of enabling infrastructure. Standards, incentives, programs, and support for innovation were all weighed in the analysis,” it said. 

To develop the NDC, the task force consulted “diverse stakeholders,” from unions to scientists, to businesses, and “many specialized researchers focused on questions of pollution reduction.” 

Significant more action is expected, however. The administration said the NDC precedes a “national climate strategy,” which the National Climate Task Force is developing and expects to issue later this year. The target is grounded in “multiple pathways” for each economic sector of the economy that produces CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases. These include electricity, transportation, buildings, industry, and lands. 

So far, from a power perspective, the U.S. has set a goal to reach 100% carbon pollution–free electricity by 2035. To achieve that goal, the White House wants to deploy “carbon pollution-free electricity generating resources, transmission, and energy storage and leveraging the carbon pollution-free energy potential of power plants retrofitted with carbon capture and existing nuclear, while ensuring those facilities meet robust and rigorous standards for worker, public, environmental safety and environmental justice.”

Industry Reactions

Even in the absence of a strong NDC, the power industry has embraced decarbonization. Several U.S. power companies already have voluntary carbon reduction goals. According to the Smart Electric Power Alliance’s utility carbon reduction tracker, 72 utilities across the U.S. have publicly stated carbon or emission reduction goals, and 49 utilities have goals of carbon-free or net-zero emissions by 2050.

“As an industry, we are proud to be worldwide leaders in reducing carbon emissions. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. power sector has reduced its carbon emissions more than every nation in the world, with the exception of the United States,” wrote Brian Wolff, Edison Electric Institute executive vice president for Public Policy and External Affairs in a recent op-ed. “Our industry has achieved a 40% carbon reduction from 2005 levels as of the end of 2020. This milestone significantly exceeds the 2030 target that was called for in the original U.S. commitment under the Paris Agreement.” 

Still industry has urged concerted federal action. In a recent letter undersigned by 408 businesses, corporate leaders said a bold 2030 target is needed to “catalyze a zero-emissions future, spur a robust economic recovery, create millions of well-paying jobs, and allow the U.S. to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic.” The letter’s  signatories include major utilities, power companies, and equipment vendors, including: ABB, Acciona, Alliant Energy, GE, Iberdrola, Public Service Enterprise Group, Schneider Electric, Shell, Siemens, Southern California Edison, AES Corp., and Vistra. 

Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), said in a statement to POWER the NDC “sends a clear message that the United States is ready to embrace the economic transformation necessary to tackle the climate crisis. A 50-52% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is an achievable, scientifically driven goal that will put us on a path toward a clean and sustainable economy,” he said. 

Wetstone, however, acknowledged that the ambitious target will require rapid transformation of the power sector and significant investment in a 21st century grid, “which is why ACORE supports the clean energy proposals included in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan,” he said.

Nuclear Innovation Alliance Executive Director Judi Greenwald also applauded the new NDC. She highlighted Biden’s call for leadership in the production and deployment of clean technologies. “If the U.S. government can provide sustained funding and support for research, development, demonstration, and commercialization of domestic advanced nuclear concepts, we will be better poised to export our technology and foster rigorous regulatory standards for nuclear energy to impoverished countries in the future,” she said. “This leadership creates a century-long diplomatic relationship with developing nations based on science and information sharing, and assists them in meeting their own climate mitigation goals.”

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) lauded Biden’s leadership with a “strong NDC,” and said the non-profit organization is looking forward to working with his administration to take the necessary steps to achieve it—“including regulatory actions to swiftly cut methane and carbon emissions and significantly increasing federal funding for carbon-free technologies.”

CATF, he noted, has advocated for significantly increased federal funding for the research, development, demonstration and deployment of zero-carbon technologies like advanced wind and solar, long-duration energy storage, advanced demand-efficiency, zero-carbon fuels, carbon capture, nuclear energy, and super hot rock deep geothermal. In March, CATF, EEI, and other groups to formed the Carbon Free Technology Initiative, issuing specific policy recommendations related to each of these carbon-free technologies, and amounting to a call for a nearly tripling in federal funding for clean energy development. 

Schneider continued: “Finally, Clean Air Task Force appreciates the Biden administration’s attention to carbon-free technology innovation under the American Jobs Plan and now the NDC.Current decarbonization technologies won’t quite get us where we need to be, and U.S. government support is critical to developing, demonstrating, and deploying innovative technologies like carbon capture, removal and storage, advanced nuclear, and zero-carbon fuels to take us across the finish line.” 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).