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COP 21: The United States announce their national contribution

Prior to the COP 21, which will be held in Paris in December 2015, the UNFCCC1 invited countries to announce their national contribution before March 31st, 2015² if they were ready to do so. Therefore, after Switzerland, the European Union, Norway and Mexico, the United States communicated their contribution³: reducing their GHG emissions by 26% by 2025 (compared to 2005) and make every effort to reduce them by 28%. According to the United States, that objective is coherent with a reduction of GHG emissions by 80% or more by 2050.

Figure 1: Evolution of GHG* emissions in the United States

* Gases included: CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, SF6, NF3

Source: Sia Partners analysis based on "1990-2013 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory"4

The United States, historically opposed to the Kyoto Treaty

The United States have always refused to ratify the Kyoto Treaty. They justify that decision by the fact that it could slow down the American economy and by their willingness to invest in the development of renewable energy sources rather than reducing GHG emissions. However, their impact on global warming is far from negligible. In 2011, they were actually the second biggest GHG emitter, behind China, with 13% of global emissions5.

Nevertheless, States and municipalities made numerous commitments to the fight against climate change. It is the case in California, a pioneer in this respect, which initiated a policy of GHG emission reduction aligned with the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol. Moreover, during the Copenhagen conference in 2009, the United States committed to reducing their GHG emissions by 17% by 2020 (compared with 2005). To reach that goal, several measures were implemented at country scale.

More recently, in November 2014, the United States and China signed an agreement to fight against climate change. The United States announced their objective of reducing their emissions by 26 to 28% between 2005 and 2025. In parallel, China committed to reach its CO2 emission peak by 2030 at the latest. The national contribution of the United States announced on March 31st 2015 takes back the target set by this agreement.

The details of the proposition

That proposition concerns all Greenhouse Gases covered by the UNFCCC. It also encompasses all American economic sectors defined by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), i.e. energy, industry processes, use of solvents and other products, agriculture, land-use change and forestry, waste and subtypes6. The United States will need to rely on several laws and draft laws to reach those targets, e.g. the "Clean Air Act" aiming to limit vehicle consumption or the "Energy Policy Act" that consists in a series of measures meant to restrain GHG emissions. The "Energy Policy Act" is translated into loan guarantees and subventions, among others, in order to encourage the development of clean technologies. By contrast, the United States claim they don't consider international carbon market mechanisms to reach their goal. It is also the case for the European Union that still implemented a GHG emissions trading scheme among its member countries in order to reduce the emissions in a cost-effective manner7.

A modest target compared with the commitments of the European Union

The EU announced its commitment to reduce its GHG emissions by 40% compared with 19908. Hence, even if the United States consider their announcement as historical and ambitious, it remains modest in view of the European objectives. First of all, the target is lower (26-28% against 40%). Then, the United States consider 2005 as benchmark, which is the year of their emission peak, while the EU take 1990 as reference. To achieve the level of effort promised by the European Union, the United States should set a reduction goal of 44% in comparison with 2005 (cf. explanations below).

Figure 2: Evolution of GHG emissions in the United States

Source: Sia Partners analysis based on "1990-2013 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory"4

Insufficient efforts in view of the global objectives

In 2013, the IPCC stated in the first volume of its fifth report9 that emissions should be limited to 1,000 billion tons of CO2 between 2012 and 2100 in order not to surpass a global warming by 2°C since the preindustrial period.

If the United States reach their objectives, they should emit around 70 billion tons of CO2 between 2012 and 2025. If they continue at the same pace until 2030, they will cumulate at least 85 billion tons of CO2 for the 2012-2030 period. In 2030, the United States alone would have emitted 8.5% of the quota defined by the IPCC for 2100. If the other countries make globally the same effort as the Americans by 2030, nearly 65% of the quota defined for 2100 by the IPCC will be consumed in only 20 years.

Therefore, the equation seems hard to resolve and the global objective of maximum +2°C by 2100 appears hardly reachable with the efforts currently proposed by the United States. To attain that target, the United States should reduce their emissions by around 75% between 2005 and 202510, far from the objective currently fixed at 26-28%.

That commitment of -28% remains conditional on the conclusion of a treaty at the end of the Paris conference. Afterwards, that treaty will need to be signed and applied by the American authorities. And nothing could be less certain since the Democratic President must face a Republican opposition, in majority in the Senate, which strongly refuses reforms for economic reasons. The COP 21 will thus only be a first step in implementing the national contribution of the United States.



[1] UNFCCC: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was created in 1992 as a result of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in order to set a global framework to face climate change. Official website here

[2] A "contribution" is an official declaration of intention, on a voluntary basis, comprising the different efforts (financial, legal, targets of reduction of emissions or energy consumption, technology transfers towards developing countries, adaptation efforts to climate change) that countries consider they can make within the framework of the negotiations of the Paris conference. The different contributions will be published progressively and retrievable on the UNFCCC website.

[3] The United States published their INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) that can be consulted here.

[4]  "1990-2013 Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory" published by the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency)

[5]  "Total GHG Emissions Including Land-Use Change and Forestry", World Resources Institute, 2011

[6] "Revised 1996 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories: Reporting Instructions"

[7] 2003/87/CE Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council of October 13, 2003, establishing an Emissions Trading System in the European Community. That system aims to reach the goals of the European Union under the Kyoto Protocol.

[8] Paris Protocol - Programme for fighting global climate change after 2020. The contribution of the European Union is detailed in this document.

[9] Fifth IPCC report. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an intergovernmental organism open to all UN member countries. Its role is to provide detailed assessments of the state of knowledge on climate change, its causes, its potential repercussions and the response strategies.

[10] Sia Partners' analysis

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