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America’s Paris Agreement Goals Are Actually Within Reach

New research reveals the U.S. has a plausible but narrow path to accomplishing its international climate commitments.

John Kerry and Joe Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Here’s the good news: The United States is closer than it’s ever been to reaching its ambitious Paris Agreement goals. For the first time since President Joe Biden set a new and aggressive carbon-reduction target in 2021 — and for the first time, arguably, since the climate accord was signed in 2016 — America has a plausible path to accomplishing its international climate commitments.

Here’s the bad: The country still needs a few more big policies to get over the line. Cities, states, companies, and the federal government must slash carbon pollution in ways that go beyond what the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate law, will achieve. Even then, emissions must plunge more than twice as fast over the next seven years as they did over the past 17.

Those are the headline findings of a new report from the Rhodium Group, a California-based energy-research firm that produces independent analyses of American climate policy.

The report finds that in order to make its 2030 goal, the U.S. needs to cut emissions about 40% faster than current estimates project. That is doable, but it will require a broad societal effort, Ben King, an author of the report and an associate director at the Rhodium Group, told me. Rhodium dubs this playbook the “joint action” scenario.

“It’s totally appropriate to look at it and say [the Paris goals] are within reach,” he said. “But being within reach doesn’t mean it’s an easy reach.”

Those policies will not be easy to pass, although according to King, they should make economic sense: The policies and actions necessary to make the Paris goal should help American households somewhere on the order of $290 to $350 a year.

The Rhodium Group\u2019s chart of various U.S. emissions pathways from 2005 to 2030. Under current policy, the U.S. will achieve cuts of 32 to 42% by 2030. Only a \u201cjoint action\u201d scenario can get the U.S. 41 to 51% of the way to its goals.The high, mid, low ranges reflect uncertainty around future fossil fuel prices, economic growth, and clean-energy technology costs.The Rhodium Group

Under the Paris Agreement, the U.S. has committed to reducing its annual emissions 50 to 52% by 2030, as compared to the all-time high that they reached in 2005. For reference, American emissions were about 15.5% below their all-time high last year, according to an early estimate. So the country obviously has a long way to go.

Some emissions cuts are already baked in, however. Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, America is on track to get its emissions about 40% below their all-time high by 2030, the report says. (There’s some uncertainty here: If fossil-fuel prices spike and the IRA is more successful than hoped, American emissions could fall as much as 42% below their all-time high; if fossil-fuel prices crash, renewable prices spike, and the IRA founders, then emissions may only fall 32% of the way below their all-time high.) So in order to make its Paris goal, the country must find an extra 10 percentage points of emissions cuts — and it must do so quickly enough to make a difference eight years from now.

So what will that require? Consider this a check list to making America’s Paris Agreement goals:

First, the Environmental Protection Administration must adopt a robust set of anti-pollution rules across several parts of the economy, King said. It must use the Clean Air Act to pass stringent new limits on how much greenhouse-gas pollution that power plants can pump into the atmosphere — and it must tighten existing rules on conventional air pollution, including toxic airborne mercury and smog that crosses state lines. The EPA also has to finalize its rules on methane pollution from oil and gas facilities, and it has to strengthen its rules for tailpipe pollution from cars and trucks so that they run to 2030.

Other federal agencies must take new actions, too. The Department of Energy needs to strengthen its energy-efficiency standards, which apply to home appliances, building equipment, and industrial machinery, King said. And the Department of Agriculture must finish setting up a program that pays farmers and foresters to use climate-smart practices.

These executive actions must then survive judicial scrutiny and remain on the books until 2030, enduring a change of presidential administration in 2024 or 2028. How likely is that? Not as improbable as you might think. Many of the rules, including the Energy Department standards and most of the EPA’s regulation, clearly falls within their respective agency’s authority, and Congress has already funded the program for climate-smart farming. But some rules, particularly the EPA’s greenhouse-gas rules for power plants, could test the conservative Supreme Court’s limits. Last year, that court struck down the EPA’s attempt to establish a carbon cap-and-trade scheme under the Clean Air Act; the justices also claimed the right to strike down any executive action that raises a “major” political question. But that ruling didn’t forbid the EPA from everissuing carbon-related regulations, and the agency could publish a new and much simpler rule that will accomplish the same carbon cuts at greater cost.

Yet even an aggressive suite of federal rules won’t be enough to achieve the country’s 2030 goal, the report found. When layered on top of the IRA, those federal programs will get the country’s emissions only about 46% below their all-time high. The country still needs to find another four to six percentage points of emissions cuts in order to lock in Paris.

So states must step up. About 20 states belong to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a pact of largely Democratic governors who committed to meeting the Paris Agreement goals. Those states must adopt “best-in-class policies,” King said, including clean-energy standards, zero-emissions targets, and low-carbon fuel standards. They must fund and grow their public-transit systems. But even that won’t be enough. In order for the U.S. to meet its goals, every utility with a clean-electricity pledge in 2030 or 2050 must have either achieved its goal or be well on its way to doing so.

If all that happens — and fossil-fuel prices don’t collapse, solar-panel and wind-turbine prices don’t spike, and the IRA isn’t rendered ineffectual or repealed outright — then the U.S. could barely make its 2030 Paris goals.

This litany of policies might seem far-fetched, but remember: The IRA, which will take America most of the way to meeting its 2030 goal, itself once seemed impossible. Finishing that journey will require many smaller impossibilities. But such is the work when the prize — a wealthy economy that is well on its way to total decarbonization — is so sweet.


Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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