President Biden has pledged to cut U.S. carbon emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/20/climate/biden-climate-change.html) This will have big implications for the U.S. economy. But it is important to keep things in perspective. Consider:
- Global warming is real. (https://itdoesnotaddup.com/2017/09/04/the-evidence-for-global-warming-a-summary/) The evidence is overwhelming: rising temperatures, shrinking arctic sea ice, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, etc.
- What should the U.S. role be in addressing this global problem? (https://www.wsj.com/articles/bidens-10-year-climate-plan-11619132440) As the world’s strongest economy, the U.S. has a responsibility to provide leadership. But the U.S. accounts for less than 15% of global emissions. Achieving Biden’s goal could conceivably require the U.S. to double its share of carbon-free power to 80% by 2030 from 40% today, half of which is provided by nuclear. Most coal plants would have to shut down and wind and solar power would have to increase six to sevenfold.
- What is China’s role? The problem is that the developing world, especially China, is responsible for the continuing increases in emissions worldwide. Under the 2015 Paris agreement, China will not even begin to decrease carbon emissions until 2030. In fact, right now, China is still increasing coal power more than the entire rest of the world combined (see chart). (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/20/climate/coal-climate-change.html)
- Worldwide emissions are growing. (https://www.nytimes.com/article/climate-change-global-warming-faq.html) Even though the U.S. and Europe have already started to reduce carbon emissions, the developing world is increasing emissions at a much faster rate (see chart). (https://www.nytimes.com/article/climate-change-global-warming-faq.html) which means that global emissions are still increasing rapidly overall.
- Better world balance is needed. Why should the U.S. and Western Europe strain their economies to cut carbon emissions when overall world carbon emissions will still continue to increase? World leaders like the U.S., Germany, France, and the U.K. should still do what they reasonably can on their own while waiting for more serious participation by China (and India), for example.
- Carbon Capture and Storage should be a large part of the solution. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/exxonmobils-plan-to-capture-carbon-11618871420) A large oil producer, ExxonMobil, estimates that 500 billion metric tons of CO2 could be stored underground along the Gulf Coast. Establishing a price on carbon (e.g. through a carbon tax or carbon offsets) would provide an economic incentive for industry to speed up the development of CCS.
Conclusion. The U.S. should definitely provide world leadership in reducing carbon emissions. But de-carbonizing is more economically and politically feasible than de-fossilizing. In fact, the developing world will not agree to de-fossilize because they will continue to use coal for many years to come in order to catch up with the West in standard of living. There are limits to how fast solar and wind energy can grow. The best way for the U.S. to provide useful leadership is to promote the expansion of nuclear energy as well as faster development of CCS technology.