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President Biden wants to slash carbon emissions in half by 2030. Here’s what it will take

University of Miami experts in environmental law, atmospheric science, and sustainability explain how Biden’s ambitious climate plan could succeed.
President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House on April 22. Photo: The Associated Press

If the Biden administration is to make good on its pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by the end of the decade, the nation will need to implement a multitude of aggressive environmental strategies, from reducing its dependence on fossil fuels and improving the fuel efficiency of cars to enacting carbon capture and sequestration programs. 

That is what a group of University of Miami experts in environmental law, atmospheric science, and sustainability agreed on after learning about the president’s ambitious plan to tackle global warming, which he unveiled this week at his two-day, virtual climate summit attended by 40 world leaders. 

“It’s not impossible, but it would require change in a lot of areas,” said Jessica Owley, a professor of law and faculty director for the environmental law program at the School of Law. “We would very much have to address our fossil fuel use, something that President Obama had started to do with his Clean Power Plan.” 

That plan, the final version of which was announced by Obama in 2015, set the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from U.S. power plants. But it was repealed by the Trump administration, which also revoked or rolled back nearly 100 other Obama-era environmental policies and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. 

Now, Biden has a chance to pick up where his former boss left off. But if he is to succeed, according to Owley, he must move quickly in detailing how the U.S. will halve emissions by the year 2030. 

One of the fastest ways would be a total switch to climate-friendly electric vehicles, said Ben Kirtman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. 

“Switching to electric cars would be the easiest target,” he said. “In the past, there was a stigma associated with electric cars that they weren’t exciting, but we are already seeing they are great. People are going to start embracing them, and they’ll become more common and cheaper.” 

Automakers are already moving in that direction, announcing plans to phase out gas-powered vehicles and ramp up production of zero-emission electric cars. General Motors, for example, announced earlier this year that it plans to exclusively offer electric vehicles by 2035. 

But one caveat is that electric vehicles are only as clean as the electricity, Owley cautioned. “If you have an electric car but you’re still getting your electricity from burning coal, then you haven’t actually cleaned up fossil fuel use,” she explained. 

It will be harder to deal with carbon offsets produced by aircraft, Kirtman said. However, he is hopeful that perhaps hybrid or all-electric jet engines may be coming down the pipeline. 

To achieve the 50 percent emission goal Biden committed to at this week’s summit, Kirtman said, the U.S. should also fully embrace solar and wind energy. He believes there are many industries that could thrive by producing alternative energy sources and envisions a day when our homes are powered by rechargeable batteries. 

With researchers reporting an acceleration in global warming, bold actions are needed, Kirtman said. The price of doing nothing would be too steep, as global temperatures would continue to rise by 0.15 to 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit each year—a warming trend that would exacerbate sea level rise and drive many species to extinction. 

“We need to be more aggressive, because by 2035 to 2040 we need to be at net zero [emissions]. There is a long way to go, and I am pleased to see the [Biden] administration make this pledge,” said Kirtman, who is also director of the NOAA-backed Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies and was one of the lead authors on the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. 

Katharine Mach, associate professor of marine ecosystems and society at the Rosenstiel School, echoed Kirtman’s sentiments. “[Biden’s] announced goal is incredibly ambitious,” she commented. “Moving in the direction of the goal will require tapping all existing solutions and building them out rapidly. Grounded ambition is important, unleashing known solutions and enabling new innovations. It is also crucially important to ensure equity and just transitions where there are implications for jobs and families. For this level of ambition to endure, cooperation across levels of government, regions, and sectors is essential.” 

Driving less and depending more on public transportation could also help bring the U.S. closer to achieving the goal, Owley said. The Earth saw dramatic decreases in carbon levels along with a rise in air quality last year during the height of the pandemic, as millions of people under work-from-home orders drove their cars much less, significantly decreasing C02 levels. 

“We should take that as an example that we can act quickly, that we actually can make big changes,” she said. 

Another strategy: implementing carbon pricing, a strategy that incentivizes polluters to pollute less by requiring them to pay for their emissions of carbon dioxide.

Biden’s aggressive commitment ahead of the upcoming 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, signifies the transition from one presidential administration to another and sends a clear message that the U.S. intends to be at the forefront in the global effort to reduce emissions, she said. 

“We’re not only signing back on to the Paris Agreement, we’re saying we’re all in and we’re going to be leaders, not just one of the people in the room,” explained Owley, who led a delegation of her students to COP25 in Madrid nearly two years ago. “Biden’s message is that we’re going to define the conversation,” she said. “But he’s got to rebuild trust in the international community before people are willing to look at the U.S. as a leader on this.” 

Indeed, the U.S. appears to be well on its way to rebuilding that trust. During the virtual climate summit, the heads-of-state from several countries followed Biden’s lead, pledging to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And China, the world’s biggest emitter, reaffirmed its commitment to go carbon neutral by 2060. “That’s going to be a big change for the world,” Owley said. 

She noted that China’s reaffirmation to peak emissions before the decade ends comes as that country and the U.S., despite disagreements over trade and human rights issues, recently agreed to cooperate on tackling the climate crisis. 

Still, the Biden administration will likely face formidable challenges to its climate plan, including lawsuits from industries resistant to changing. “When the Clean Air Act was used to regulate car emissions, we saw the car companies sue,” Owley said. “Now, we could see the fossil fuel industries do the same.” 

Natalie Cavellier, a third-year law student at the University of Miami and outreach coordinator for the Environmental Law Society, is cautiously optimistic about Biden’s climate plan. “While he has emphasized a pivot to a greener economy, established a climate advisor position, and said that the United States will use its influence to increase global climate ambition at COP26, these measures have yet to induce action,” said Cavellier, one of the Miami Law students who attended COP25. “I am hopeful that he can get the global players to commit to and abide by stricter climate goals in Glasgow. As a global leader, the United States has a marked effect on global commerce and the decisions other countries make.” 

Said Teddy Lhoutellier, the University’s sustainability manager, “We already have the tools to reverse global warming. It’s a matter of putting things in motion fast enough.”