US poised and ready for net zero shift

The majority of Americans are now covered by a net zero target, but now it's time for the federal government to step up and implement policies commensurate with this, argues a report by Oxford Net Zero. By Kaya Axelsson, Stephen Lezak & Kate Cullen | March 23, 2021

This week, the US House of Representatives will hear a bill, titled the Clean Future Act, to declare a net zero climate target for the US no later than 2050, with a 50% pollution reduction target no later than 2030. This legislative timeline aligns with the Biden Administration’s goal to announce a net zero strategy on April 22, Earth Day.

Our new research surveyed states, cities, and companies across the US, measuring their climate targets against Race to Zero Criteria and leadership practices.

Remarkably, we found that the majority of America is already preparing for a net zero future. A federal net zero policy can’t come quickly enough. In the absence of national climate coordination over the past four years, local governments and private sector leaders have been busy writing their own net zero strategies.

Following a groundswell of support for climate action in 2020, the majority of Americans (53%) now live in a jurisdiction with a net zero emissions target.

The private sector has also taken note, with US companies accounting for at least $5.2 trillion (£3.74 trillion) in yearly sales committing to net zero.

The collective footprint of US institutions and stakeholders who have already adopted a net zero target suggests the US is at a climate policy inflection point, poised to rapidly accelerate into the decisive decade.

Federal leadership

Our report also shows that federal leadership is needed to help align standards on net zero. Without coordination from D.C, subnational action has created a patchwork of different goals. Many net zero pledges are missing key criteria and governance structures, highlighting the importance of coordination.

Some of these issues concern the scope and responsibility of targets. For instance, should the city of Los Angeles account for electricity from a power plant in Nevada that burns gas from Wyoming in its net zero target?

Other questions are more nuanced but equally critical, such as the role that offsets should play in decarbonization pathways, or how to address key issues of equity and ensure a just energy transition for workers.

Coordinated leadership from Congress and the Biden-Harris administration is needed to ensure that net zero targets align to a science-based national net zero pathway compatible with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.

Four-pronged approach

Our report identifies a four-pronged approach for US policymakers to leverage the base of support provided by US subnational actors for a new era of climate federalism.

Federal government must pledge to reach net-zero emissions through a legally-binding commitment (first through executive order and then by legislation), accounting for all greenhouse gases, with an interim target of 50% emissions reductions by 2030. The US can do this by passing the net zero house bill in committee hearings this week.

The next step is to produce a national net zero roadmap demonstrating how subnational pledges can consider issues of equity and justice and place constraints on the role of offsets.

It’s also vital to align economic recovery spending with long-term climate goals, develop sector-specific net zero strategies and mandate net zero alignment as a condition for federal bailouts. Transparency is key to keeping on track, the administration should publish an annual national progress report that includes the progress of subnational commitments.

These policies sound ambitious, but the administration should consider that in a January poll, 53 % of registered voters said that global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress, and 66% supported developing sources of clean energy.

With legislation like the Clean Future Act, the federal government has an important opportunity to level up subnational and private sector climate action to achieve a national net zero strategy in a just, equitable and cost-effective way.

By proactively coordinating net zero pathways, the US can send a strong signal to industry, subnational actors, and allies by illustrating the depth and seriousness of the US’ commitment. Coordinated federal leadership will also increase climate policy legibility, open up coordination across sectors and regions, and highlight pathways for local leaders to monitor, incentivise and enforce targets in their own jurisdictions.

The majority of the country is already in the race, with or without federal leadership. But our research shows that the path to net zero will be much smoother if Americans act together to achieve our climate goals.

Kaya Axelsson is the net zero policy engagement fellow at the University of Oxford and a strategic advisor to the global Race to Zero campaign.

Stephen Lezak is a Gates scholar and PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge and manages the Oxford Programme on the Sustainable Future of Commodities and Infrastructure

Kate Cullen, lead author of the report is a PhD Student in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley and a researcher at the University of Oxford where she focuses on net zero policy

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