Is it too soon for America to adopt a comprehensive net-zero strategy?

With the majority of Americans now covered by a net-zero target, the US has an opportunity to level up subnational and private sector climate action. The Clean Future Act can’t come quickly enough

Stephen Lezak ,Kate Cullen,Kaya Axelsson
Friday 19 March 2021 14:03 GMT
‘Our research shows that the path to net zero will be much smoother if Americans act together to achieve our climate goals’
‘Our research shows that the path to net zero will be much smoother if Americans act together to achieve our climate goals’ (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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 United States no later than 2050, with a 50 per cent 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. 

A few right-wing legislators, including the Republican leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, have already come out against the bill, calling it a “rush to green” and posing the question: is it too soon for America to adopt a comprehensive net-zero strategy?

Our new research, conducted at the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, surveyed states, cities, and companies across the US, and 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 per cent) 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 United States is at a climate policy inflection point, poised to rapidly accelerate into the decisive decade.

Our report also shows that federal leadership is needed to help align standards on net zero.

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Without coordination from DC, 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 cover emissions in their net-zero target for electricity that comes from a power plant in Nevada that burns gas from Wyoming? Other questions are more nuanced but equally critical, such as the role that offsets should play in decarbonisation 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.

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 per cent 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.

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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 congress should consider that in a January poll, 53 per cent of registered voters said that global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress, and 66 per cent 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’s 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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