How the U.S. Could Slash Climate Pollution by 2030

Democrats will soon reveal how the Biden administration’s plans could cut U.S. climate pollution in half this decade. Is that goal even possible?

A smokestack billows vapor into a white sky
ESOlex / Getty

President Joe Biden has been giving climate advocates heartburn.

In April, soon after rejoining the Paris Agreement, he set a goal: The United States would cut its greenhouse-gas pollution by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The White House promised that “a careful interagency process” had produced that goal, and at least a dozen reports from outside scholars and nonprofits argued that such an ambitious cut could be done. As a candidate, Biden had no shortage of plans for each sector of the economy. But how the Biden administration planned to turn those plans into concrete greenhouse-gas reductions and meet its own 2030 target, it didn’t say.

Hence the heartburn, especially after the president’s bipartisan infrastructure deal proved obviously insufficient to the task. But some relief may be on the way: In the coming days, Democrats will start to show how, exactly, their plans will reduce America’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will soon release an analysis showing that the budget-reconciliation bill and the bipartisan infrastructure bill will combine to reduce U.S. emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, according to a person familiar with the situation, who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the report on the record.

The most important policies for emissions reductions are in Democrats’ reconciliation bill, the analysis shows. They are the Clean Electricity Payment Program, which would compensate utilities for switching to zero-carbon electricity, and an overhaul of the clean-energy tax credits. Consumer rebates for zero-emissions vehicles, a new agriculture-conservation program, and a fee on methane leaks from the oil and gas sector would also contribute significant emissions cuts.

Forty percent, of course, is not 50 percent, Biden’s stated goal. But the analysis will show that the two bills—if combined with new executive actions from the Biden administration—would put the U.S. on track to meet Biden’s full 2030 goal, the person said.

When thinking about carbon, we should think about tons. They are the coin of the climate realm. The average car on the road in America releases a metric ton of carbon dioxide every two and a half months, give or take. That is, to be absolutely clear, the kind of ton usually measured in bricks—2,200 pounds, a walrus’s weight of pollution.

Now note that in 2005, the United States released 6.69 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas pollution, according to data from the Rhodium Group, an energy research and consulting firm. The country has not released so much carbon-dioxide climate pollution in a single year since—and with any luck, it never will again. In the past 16 years, emissions have slowly leveled off, and today they are about 20 percent below their 2005 high, John Larsen, a director at the Rhodium Group, told me.

But for the U.S. to meet Biden’s goal, it must more than double its historic pace of emissions reduction. By 2030, the country should release only 3.35 billion tons of climate pollution a year.

Biden, in other words, must find about 2 billion metric tons of climate pollution to eliminate in the energy system. Is that even possible?

“I would say yes, from a technological standpoint. It’s not Can we do it? but Will we do it?Danielle Arostegui, a senior analyst for U.S. climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, told me.

A donut chart showing how much of its annual carbon pollution the US has already eliminated
All percentages refer to 2005 emissions levels. (Rhodium Group data)

If today’s policies were to continue unchanged—which is not Biden’s goal, of course—then the U.S. could probably eke out another six percentage points of declines by 2030, Larsen said. These reductions would be due to, say, planned coal-plant closures.

A donut chart showing US annual emissions reductions. The US can expect 6 percent of emissions reductions even without further climate policy.
All percentages refer to 2005 emissions levels. (Rhodium Group data)

To meet his goal, then, Biden needs to find another 24 percentage points of reductions in the energy system.

Where will that come from? “All sectors of the economy will need to contribute in some way,” said Arostegui, who co-wrote a report about the 2030 goal. But she and everyone else agrees: You want to start with the power sector.

The electricity sector will produce about 1.5 billion tons of climate pollution this year, making it the second-dirtiest part of the American economy, after transportation, according to Rhodium data. But it also has “the opportunity for the biggest, fastest reductions,” Larsen said.

Not only is it possible to build sources of zero-carbon electricity, such as wind and solar, quickly and at scale, but the power sector also has more than 200 coal plants left to lose. “The most carbon-intensive activities in the country are coal plants, so the more of those you can turn down, if not retire, in the next decade—that’s emissions reductions right there,” Larsen said.

If Congress passes the Clean Electricity Payment Program and the new clean-energy tax credits, that would do the most to push down emissions, he said. But new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency could also help. (The two can also work together: New EPA regulations will be much cheaper to implement if Congress passes subsidies.)

The White House has set a goal of 80 percent emissions reductions from the power sector by 2030. If the U.S. meets that goal, Larsen said, it would get another 11 percentage points of reductions.

A donut chart showing that the U.S. can reduce its emissions by 11 percent, compared to 2005 levels, by accomplishing Biden’s power-sector goal.
All percentages refer to 2005 emissions levels. (Rhodium Group data)

Only 13 percentage points remain. But “that 13 percentage points is almost certainly harder to get,” Larsen said.

The next obvious place to look would be transportation, but analysts disagree on exactly how much gain is available here. Biden has set a goal for half of all new car and truck sales in 2030 to be of electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles. But that policy will take years to actually drive down emissions. Americans replace their cars only about once a decade, so even if a large share of new car sales were EVs, the fleet of all cars on the road would remain mostly unchanged. Rhodium expects EV subsidies to cut just a few percentage points by the end of the decade, Larsen said.

Were the U.S. to electrify medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, such as school buses and trash trucks, it could eliminate some more tons, Arostegui said. The bipartisan infrastructure deal includes $5 billion to buy zero-emissions school buses (one-fifth of what Democrats once asked for).

The most optimistic projection I heard was from Sam Ricketts, a co-director at the climate-focused advocacy group Evergreen Action. He thinks that improvements to the transportation sector could knock out a quarter of Biden’s 2030 goal, equivalent to about six percentage points. Even then, “most emissions reductions” from Biden’s transportation policy “won’t happen until the 2030s,” he conceded.

A donut chart showing that transportation policy could eliminate 6 percent of emissions, getting the U.S. to 43 percent reductions compared to 2005 levels. But Biden would still need to find another 7 percent of cuts.
All percentages refer to 2005 emissions levels. (Rhodium Group data)

After that, finding reductions gets harder still. The industrial sector, which encompasses the chemical, steel, and cement industries, emits about a fifth of domestic climate pollution today, according to Rhodium. Congress is considering a fee on methane leaks from the oil and gas sector, which could eliminate some of that amount, Arostegui said. But Rhodium’s models project that sector-wide decarbonization will need to wait until carbon dioxide can be captured effectively from smokestacks. “You’ll have no serious change in industrial emissions without carbon capture,” Larsen said.

Heating systems in buildings, which generate 11 percent of the country’s emissions today, will also prove stubborn. Congress may fund retrofits for old buildings, and the Biden administration has undertaken some nonbinding executive actions in the sector. An EDF report published earlier this year said that buildings might cut about one percentage point of carbon pollution by 2030.

The main problem, Larsen said, is that after power and transportation, you have hunted all the big game in the energy system. “There’s no three places where you get all the tons at this point. It’s more like 10 or 12,” Larsen said. “I don’t know if the broader community appreciates that. There’s no one technology applied broadly that just does this.”

Larsen said that he was optimistic about carbon removal, which would remove climate pollution directly from the atmosphere. But Rhodium’s most hopeful projections show that it could remove at most 9 million tons of carbon dioxide a year by the end of the decade. That is only about one-seventh of one percentage point toward Biden’s goal.

Decarbonizing, in other words, is hard. “It isn’t all sunshine and solar panels and lollipops and we call it a day,” Larsen said. This matters for Schumer’s forthcoming analysis, which will undoubtedly show big reductions from power-sector policy. Yet in order to demonstrate its seriousness and trustworthiness, the analysis must show that it knows where all the little, meaningful, non-lollipop adjustments will occur.

These emissions estimates might seem like a mere intellectual exercise, but they have stratospheric stakes for the Biden administration. At home, Biden’s allies need these analyses to show that the reconciliation package, which now totals $3.5 trillion, cannot be shrunk any further without endangering its ability to fight climate change. Senator Kyrsten Sinema has warned that she will not vote for a $3.5 trillion package. But “the smaller the package gets, the less likely it is to do the work necessary to reduce global warming,” Christy Goldfuss, who helped write President Barack Obama’s climate policies and is now a senior vice president for energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress, told me.

“There isn’t a lot of room for error,” she said. “When you address climate change with investment primarily, it means the cost is pretty high.”

But the estimates may matter even more abroad, where American negotiators need something to prove to the world—especially to their European counterparts—that the U.S. can meet its 2030 commitment. The alternative to all this would be a carbon price similar to the European Union’s, but neither Biden nor Congress is pushing one right now. In the past 40 years, an edifice of economic wisdom and policy analysis has sprung up demonstrating how carbon taxes can decarbonize the energy system. Far less work has been done on the sector-by-sector approach that America is now pursuing. “If we were focused on a carbon tax, we would have ample studies to point to,” Goldfuss said. “There is a lot less known on the investment side.” (For what it’s worth, models suggest that a carbon price of $55 a ton, rising 5 percent each year, would meet Biden’s 2030 goal by itself.)

Say all this works, though. Even after meeting the 2030 goal, the U.S. would then need to rush to eliminate another 3.35 billion tons in annual emissions to meet its further goal of achieving net zero by 2050. And even under that optimistic scenario, we are talking about annual emissions, not total emissions. Under Biden’s plan, we will still be adding more climate pollution to the atmosphere every year for decades to come.

And yet. Canada, the European Union, South Korea, and Japan have also set net-zero-by-2050 goals; China is aiming for 2060. Those countries and the U.S. emit about 58 percent of the planet’s climate pollution. If China moved up its goal and the rest of the world joined us in hitting net zero by 2050, humanity would likely stave off a permanent increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius in global temperature, according to this month’s landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

It can be done, in other words. But first we need to do it.