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S&P podcast: As US reenters Paris accord, 'controversial' climate actions needed

The question is top of mind for energy and climate hawks: What will a new U.S. climate target look like after the nation officially rejoins the Paris Agreement on climate change Feb. 19 under President Joe Biden?

Several experts weighed in on this question and the implications for the energy transition already underway on the latest episode of "Energy Evolution," a podcast by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

According to climate negotiators, the U.S. nationally determined contribution, or NDC — a nonbinding aspirational goal aimed at avoiding catastrophic climate shocks — needs to align with other top global economies such as the European Union. The EU, for example, already aims to become carbon-neutral by midcentury. Climate scientists warn that such a far-off target needs to be reinforced with more immediate actions that slash the U.S. economy's planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, relative to 2005 levels, as the next global climate summit, dubbed COP26, is scheduled to convene in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

A potential 50%-by-2030 reduction represents a major jump in ambition from the Obama administration's initial pledge to reduce emissions between 26% and 28% by 2025 as part of the original 2015 Paris deal. So far, the U.S. and the vast majority of Paris signatories have yet to map out near-term reductions, according to a 2019 United Nations report. In the U.S., power-sector emissions are falling while transportation-sector emissions are rising. Paris signatories hope that COP26 can produce new NDCs aimed at actually limiting global warming to 2 degrees C below preindustrial temperatures.

With the U.S. Congress narrowly divided along partisan lines, much of the near-term U.S. regulatory work to cut emissions will fall upon federal agencies that have already been tasked by Biden through executive orders to assume a "whole of government" approach to combating climate change.

Still, the U.S. will ultimately need to do more to ensure that its Paris commitments are not reversed in light of former President Donald Trump's efforts to scrap virtually all of his predecessor's signature climate and energy rules, Julia Cerqueira, executive director of the U.S. Climate Alliance, said at a recent virtual event hosted by ICF International, a global advisory and digital services provider.

"We need an ambitious and durable NDC because it's not just about having a number that people are expecting is sufficiently high that is going to put us on a pathway for net-zero," Cerqueira said. "It's also making sure that that pathway is pragmatic, that there's a way for us to get there not just now, through executive orders, but well into the future when there is an eventual change in leadership."

In the meantime, the U.S. can take concrete steps that signal to the rest of the world it is serious about curbing emissions on par with other top global emitters, experts said. A new U.S. NDC is expected to be unveiled when Biden hosts an international climate summit in April.

No industry spared

Among those interviewed in the latest "Energy Evolution" episode, Christine Todd Whitman, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator who served under President George W. Bush, acknowledged the nation needs to bridge what she described as a "credibility gap."

"We have to start taking some actions here domestically that are probably going to be controversial, maybe difficult to get through, but things that show that we are, in fact, going to follow through on this," Whitman said.

Potential examples of administrative climate actions under Biden already abound, said Robert Kay, a principal of climate and resilience at ICF.

Specifically, Kay cited Biden's goal of decarbonizing the U.S. power sector by 2035, a plan to conserve 30% of U.S. land by 2030, the creation of a civilian Climate Corps, and efforts to ensure 40% of the nation's energy transition goes toward disadvantaged communities.

Eric Usher, head of the United Nations' Environment Programme Finance Initiative, cast a broader view.

"It's really about how do we rethink how almost all of our industries operate because carbon has been embedded in our industrial model," he said. "And now what we need to do is we need to decarbonize, whether it's aviation, shipping, other types of transport — energy, but also agriculture, cement, steel, buildings, and construction, the food industry. All of these industries have to think about how they're going to decarbonize."

Jonathan Elkind, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, stressed that U.S. credibility will rest on actions big and small.

"International partners could be forgiven for looking at the United States and saying, 'Are you all here to stay this time, or this is just the next couple of years?'" Elkind said.

Episodes of "Energy Evolution" are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other platforms.