For four years under President Donald Trump, the United States all but stopped trying to address climate change at the federal level. Trump is no longer in office, but his presidency has left the country far behind in an already uphill race.
A new report from researchers at Yale and Columbia universities shows that the environmental performance of the United States has fallen relative to other countries, reflecting the fact that while the United States has wasted nearly a half a decade, many of their peers acted deliberately.
But, pointing out the deep-seated obstacles to reducing greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change, even this movement was insufficient. The sobering finding of the report is that while nearly all countries have committed to net zero emissions by 2050 (the point where their activities no longer add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere) , almost none are on track to do so.
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The report, called the Environmental Performance Index, or EPI, found that, based on their trajectories from 2010 to 2019, only Denmark and Britain were on a sustainable path to eliminating emissions by the middle of the century.
Namibia and Botswana appeared to be on the right track with caveats: they had stronger records than their sub-Saharan African peers, but their emissions were minimal to begin with, and the researchers did not call their progress a sustainable as it was not clear that would suffice as their economies developed.
The other 176 nations in the report were close to missing net zero targets, some by wide margins. China, India, the United States and Russia were on track to account for more than half of global emissions by 2050. But even countries like Germany that have adopted more comprehensive climate policies are not. are not doing enough.
“We believe this report is going to be a wake-up call to a wide range of countries, many of which could have imagined themselves doing what they needed to do and few of which actually do,” said Daniel C. Esty. . , the director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which produces the PPE every two years.
A United Nations report this year found that there is still time, but not much, for countries to change course and achieve their goals. The case of the United States shows how a few years of inaction can throw a country off course, steepening the slope of the emissions reductions needed to recover.
The 2022 edition of the index, provided to The New York Times ahead of its release on Wednesday, scored 180 countries on 40 indicators related to climate, environmental health and ecosystem vitality. Individual endpoints were highly varied, including tree cover loss, wastewater treatment, fine particulate pollution, and lead exposure.
The United States ranked 43rd overall, with a score of 51.1 out of 100, compared to 24th place and a score of 69.3 in the 2020 edition. Its decline is largely attributable to the fall of its climate policy: on climate metrics, it fell from 15th to 101st place and trailed all wealthy western democracies except Canada, which was 142nd.
The climate analysis is based on data up to 2019, and the previous report was based on data up to 2017, meaning the change stems from Trump-era policies and does not reflect recovery or change. regulatory expansion by President Joe Biden.
US emissions have fallen significantly over the full 10-year period examined, which also included most of the Obama administration and its efforts to regulate emissions, and the nation continues to outperform other major polluters.
But the pace of reduction has been insufficient given the extremely high starting point in the United States. The United States is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China. If current trajectories continue, it would be the third largest in 2050, behind China and India, the lowest-ranked country in the overall index.
At the other end of the spectrum is Denmark, ranked No. 1 on climate and overall, whose parliament has pledged to cut emissions 70% below 1990 levels by 2030. The country gets about two-thirds of its electricity from clean sources. , and its largest city, Copenhagen, aims to achieve carbon neutrality within the next three years.
Denmark has dramatically expanded wind power, set a date to end oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, taxed carbon dioxide emissions and brokered deals with leaders in transport, agriculture and other sectors. Its economy has grown as emissions have fallen.
“This is such a complete transformation of our entire society that there is no one tool you can use, one policy you can use globally, and that will only solve the problem,” said said Dan Jorgensen, Denmark’s climate minister. Denmark has shown “that it is possible to make this transformation in a way that does not harm your societies”, he said.
“It’s not something that makes you less competitive,” Jorgensen said. “In fact, it’s the opposite.”
The report’s methodology distinguishes between countries like Denmark that intentionally switch to renewable energy and countries like Venezuela whose emissions only drop as a side effect of economic collapse.
One of the good news he found was that many countries, including the United States, have begun to “decouple” emissions from economic growth, meaning their economies are no longer directly dependent on the amount of fossil fuels they burn.
Overall, the richest countries still emit much more than the poorest. But two countries with similar GDPs can have very different levels of emissions.
“The main conclusion at this time is that policy matters and that there are specific pathways to a more carbon-neutral and climate-friendly future,” said one of the report’s co-authors, Alexander de Sherbinin, associate director and principal researcher. scientist at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia. “But it really requires a high-level political agreement.”
The report is the first edition of the IPE to estimate future emissions, and its methodology has its limitations. Obviously, because it is based on data up to 2019, it does not take into account more recent actions. It also does not take into account the possibility of removing carbon already emitted from the air; such technology is currently limited, but could make a significant difference down the line. And that only reflects what would happen if countries continued to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions at the same rate, rather than adopting stronger policies or, on the contrary, running out of steam.
This explains a stark disagreement between PPE researchers, who found Britain on the right track, and Britain’s Independent Committee on Climate Change, which advises the UK government and said current policies fall short. (There is also a technical distinction: in addition to national emissions, the committee considers what other countries emit by producing goods that Britain imports, and the PPE does not.)
Britain’s recent cuts have largely come from the switch from coal to natural gas, and the Climate Change Committee is “somewhat pessimistic that the trend will continue now that the low-hanging fruits have been picked”, said Martin Wolf, project manager of the EPI. “I see the rapid expansion of renewable energy capacity in the UK as a sign that the country is still on the right track.”
Tanja Srebotnjak, director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College and an expert in environmental statistics, said she viewed the projection methodology as “a reasonable first attempt” that could be refined later.
How best to extrapolate current trends is a matter of debate, said Srebotnjak, who has worked on previous editions of the EPI but was not involved in this year’s report or the development of the new metric. But she added: “I think it will help policy makers to have another tool in their toolbox to track their progress and compare themselves to their peers, to maybe learn from each other.”
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