This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.


Can Obama's COP21 Proposal to Reduce Total GHG Emissions by 26% be Achieved?


Last year President Obama announced his latest policy to reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 26%-28% in 2025 from the 2005 baseline level.  In March 2015 the Administration submitted a ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDC) to the UNFCCC, which could formally commit the U.S. to reducing its total GHG emissions by at least 26% in 2025.  The President apparently believes that by making this GHG emission reduction commitment other Nations would be persuaded to follow the U.S.’s lead in more aggressively reducing their future GHG emissions.

EPA data shows that U.S. total GHG or ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ (CO2(e)) emissions  decreased by 9% 2005-2013.  Total CO2(e) emissions primarily consist of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the consumption of fossil fuels.  Unfortunately due to increased consumption of higher carbon fossil fuels 2013-2014 total U.S. CO2 and CO2(e) emissions increased by about 1%.  Since U.S. total CO2(e) emissions are currently only about 8% less than the 2005 baseline level, can the U.S. reasonably achieve an additional 18%-20% reduction in total CO2(e) emissions over the next 10 years?

Obama Administration GHG Reduction Policy Brief History – In 2009 President Obama proposed a ‘Climate Action Plan’ that initially targeted reducing U.S. total GHG emissions by 17% 2005-2020.  This policy was supported by the U.S. House of Representatives when they passed the first U.S. ‘Cap-and-Trade bill; ACES Act of 2009.  This bill, however, died in the Senate and never became law.

Since the Obama Administration’s failed to persuade the Democratically controlled Congress to pass any form of GHG reduction law, the President and Administration’s Department Agencies have implemented a number of regulatory and executive actions to achieve various levels of reduced fossil fuels consumption, reduced GHG CO2(e) emissions, and further expand renewable energy sources.  These actions largely included increased light/heavy duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards, continued renewable energy expansion support, and more recently, reducing existing-new power generation plants’ CO2 emissions.

In November 2014 President Obama met with China’s President Xi Jinping to negotiate joint plans to reduce future GHG emissions.  During this meeting President Obama announced his intended target for the U.S. to reduce total GHG emissions by 26%-28% 2005-2025.  China indicated possibly capping their maximum GHG emissions in 2030.  The two Presidents apparently believed announcing their future GHG targets well ahead of the November 2015 Paris COP21 (21st Conference of Parties) negotiations could persuade other Countries to make similar aggressive GHG reduction commitments.

This latest U.S. GHG emission reduction policy is based primarily on existing Federal Regulations.  The policy basically assumes the ‘annual average reduction rates’ of CO2(e) emissions planned for 2005-2020 (17% total reduction) will substantially increase 2020-2025 in order to achieve the final 26%-28% total reduction target.

Recent Total U.S. GHG Emissions – The EPA is responsible to track U.S. GHG emissions inventories.  Major GHG emissions include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases (HFC’s, PFC’s, SF6, & NF3).  The most recent year of available data is for 2013.  Refer to Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Total U.S. GHG Emissions, 2013


Data Source: EPA Overview of Greenhouse Gases.  Note: ‘percentage’ mix based on CO2(e) emissions. 

 In 2013 the EPA estimates that total (gross) U.S. CO2(e) emissions were 6,673 million metric tons per year (MMT/yr.).  Refer to EPA data Table ES-2.  Figure 1 shows that 82%, or about 5,505 MMT/yr., come from CO2; primarily fossil fuels consumption.  Methane is the next largest source of CO2(e) emissions; 636 MMT/yr..  The largest sources of methane CO2(e) emissions are (54%) from ‘enteric fermentation’ (animal digestive gases) + landfills & manure (anaerobic digestion), and (41%) from natural gas systems (primarily leakage), coal (mining gas leakage) and petroleum systems (light hydrocarbons leakage-consumption emissions).

The good news is that review of EPA data show that both total methane CO2(e) emissions and CO2 emissions have declined by 10% 2005-2013.  Unfortunately ‘fluorinated gases’ CO2(e) emissions increased by 16% 2005-2013; for a total U.S. CO2(e) emission reduction of 9%.  The question becomes: is the recent reductions in total U.S. CO2(e) emissions sustainable and can it be substantially increased up to 26% 2005-2025?

Credible Future CO2(e) Emission Projections – EPA data shows (Re. Table 2 ES-2; 2013) that 87% of total U.S. GHG CO2(e) emissions are ‘directly’ (consumption CO2 emissions) and ‘indirectly’ (production-processing CH4 and N2O emissions) attributed to fossil fuels.  Analysis of EPA data indicates that fossil fuel total direct+indirect CO2(e) emissions have averaged 87% of total GHG emissions during 2005-2013 and 1990-2013.  This means that statistically total U.S. GHG emissions are directly proportional to the CO2 emissions from fossils fuels consumption.  Based on this relationship future total U.S. GHG CO2(e) emissions can be reasonably estimated based on future fossil fuels consumption and associated CO2 emissions projections.  One of the most accurate and credible fossils fuels consumption/CO2 emission projections routinely developed by the Federal Government is the DOE, U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). 

The EIA’s most recent U.S. energy consumption/CO2 emissions projection is the ‘Annual Energy Outlook’ (AEO) 2015  report.  The AEO projections are based on existing State and Federal energy related policies and regulations, and Federal economic forecasts.  In the case of the AEO2015, all existing CO2 related regulations are included as outlined in the Administration’s recent ‘2025 Emissions Target’ factsheet, with the exception of the ‘Clean Power Plan’; 30% reduction in Power Sector carbon emissions 2005-2030.  This new Clean Power regulation is still under development and will normally not be included in future AEO reports until after the regulation is finalized.

An initial analysis of the AEO2015 report indicates that major macroeconomic factors’ ‘unit-energy consumptions’ are projected to continuously decrease 2015-2040.  Refer to Figure 2.

Figure 2 – U.S. Unit GDP and Per Capita Energy Consumption, 2015-2040


Data Source: 2004-2015 data are based on EIA MER reports and 2015-2040 data are based on AEO2015 Tables ‘A20. Macroeconomic indicatorsand ‘A2. Energy consumption by sector and source’ .  Note: K=thousand and M=million. 

The EIA projects that GDP ‘unit’ energy consumption (K Btu/$100 GDP) will decrease continuously by about 1.6% per year or 40% overall 2015-2040.  The EIA also projects a near continuous, but smaller decrease in ‘per Capita’ energy consumption during the same period.  Both of these projections are consistent with State and Federal energy policies intended to continuously increased energy efficiencies in all End-use Sectors and the economy overall.

AEO2015 Projected CO2 Emissions – The EIA has projected each End-use Sector’s CO2 emissions for 2015-2040 based on primary (direct fossil fuels consumption) and secondary (the amount of electricity consumed from the centralized Power Sector) energy consumptions.  Refer to Figure 3.

Figure 3 – U.S. Total End-use Sector CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuels Consumption 


Data Source: EIA MER and AEO2015 ‘Table 19. Energy-related CO2 emissions by end use’.  

The EIA projects that Transportation and Residential CO2 emissions should ‘decline’ by 4.6% and 2.9% respectively, 2015-2040.  During this same period Industrial and Commercial CO2 emissions are projected to ‘increase’ by 10.1% and 4.5% respectively.  Yes, despite the continuous increase in GDP energy-thermal efficiency (Figure 2), the growth rate in the U.S. Economy’s total GDP (average of 3.2% per year; 2009 dollar basis) unfortunately more than offsets past and future efficiency/alternative lower carbon energy improvements.  And, although the past and current Energy Policies (CAFE, RFS, Residential efficiency standards, etc.) have helped directionally reduce per capita fossil fuels consumption, past and existing regulations have not fully offset the growth rates of the U.S. Population 2015-2040.  For example: light duty vehicles’ (on-road) fuel efficiencies are projected to increase from 31 to 47 mpg (51%) 2015-2040.  Most of this increased vehicle fuel efficiency is unfortunately offset by projected increased ‘vehicle miles traveled’; largely due to a projected 59 million increase in the total U.S. population 2015-2040.

AEO2015 Projected Total U.S. CO2 Emissions 2015-2040 – The EIA projects that total U.S. CO2 emissions will increase slightly, and remain relatively constant over the next 25 years.  Refer to Figure 4.

Figure 4 – U.S. Power Sector and Total CO2 Emissions, 2015-2040


Data Source: EIA MER and AEO2015 ‘Table 19. Energy-related CO2 emissions by end use’.  Note: the AEO Total US and Power Sector ‘Modified (30%)’ are based on adjusting the Power Sector original AEO2015 data for the full compliance with the developing EPA 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. 

As previously discussed, the (unadjusted) AEO2015 projections do not include the currently developing EPA regulation that could decrease the Power Sector’s total CO2 emissions by 30% 2005-2030.   To illustrate the possible impacts of this developing EPA Power Sector carbon reduction regulation a ‘modified (30%)’ adjusted AEO projection was developed.  Figure 4 shows that adjusting-reducing total Power Sector CO2 emissions by 30% 2005-2030 would reduce total U.S. carbon CO2 emissions by almost 320 MMT/yr. below the original AEO2015 2025 projection.  This unfortunately yields only a 13% 2005-2025 reduction in total U.S. CO2 emissions and the proportional total U.S. GHG CO2(e)  emissions, or half President Obama’s submitted INDC (26%-28%) for the November COP21 negotiations.

In Conclusion – Can President Obama’s (INDC) proposal to reduce total U.S. GHG emissions by 26% 2005-2025 be feasibly achieved?  Based existing and developing energy and GHG-carbon reduction regulations the answer is ‘highly improbable’.  The next question becomes, what Government energy and GHG-carbon reduction regulation changes are needed to increase the likelihood of actually reducing total U.S. GHG emissions by up to 26% 2005-2025?

A couple possible options that build on past successful regulations and could actually reduce total U.S. CO2(e) emissions by 26% 2005-2025 are as follows:

  1. Immediately increase the on-road vehicle CAFE standards up to 100 mpg; gasoline equivalent.  This would effectively require replacing 80+% of the total existing ICE LDV fleet with EV’s over the next 10 years.
  2. Increase the EPA’s new Power Sector carbon emission reduction standard for all existing and new power generation facilities from 30% up to at least 80% by 2030.  This would require at least doubling the EIA projected Nuclear and quadrupling Renewable Power based on AEO2015 added ‘net generation’ capacities 2015-2025.  Increased Nuclear will be required to reasonably balance Power Grids’ baseload + reserve generation capacities as needed to properly maintain all major Grids’ reliabilities.

It normally takes 5-10 years to design/fund/permit and build/startup most major projects such as new centralized large power generation plants.  Nuclear Power projects unfortunately are the most time-consuming with design-startup schedules often >10 years.  The probability of actually reducing total U.S. GHG emissions by up to 26% within 10 years based solely on a substantially more aggressive Power Sector reduced carbon strategy is probably not feasibly.  And, replacing 80% or well over 100 million existing ICE LDV’s with EV’s by 2025 is also not reasonably feasible.  More realistically, based on existing GHG-carbon reduction related regulations and proven technologies, it will probably take at least 20 years to reduce total U.S. GHG emissions by 26% from the 2005 baseline level.  The ultimate solution will also most likely require continuously building on many other existing-successful regulatory actions such as further increasing of energy efficiencies within all End-use Sectors, and continue supporting and developing commercially viable lower carbon energy alternatives to current fossil fuels.

So with the continuous growth in a reasonably healthy U.S. Economy in most future years and a continuously increasing total Population, how do you believe and under what time frame, could the U.S. most feasibly achieve a 26% reduction in total GHG emissions from its 2005 level?

John Miller's picture

Thank John for the Post!

Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.


Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 1, 2015 6:35 pm GMT


As the old saying goes, where there’s a will there’s a way.  Right now, there’s not much will, but I think public opinion is shifting, and may soon galvanize around addressing the problem, especially if we get more extreme weather events.

It would be interesting to know how many people in Texas and OK recently had a revelation about climate change.





John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 2, 2015 2:29 am GMT

Hops, there may be a growing ‘will’, but the problem statement or challenge is which ‘way(s)’ will actually make a significant difference within the next couple-few generations?  And, how do we overcome the growth in most nation’s populations and increasing living standards energy intensities; particularly in Developing Countries?

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 2, 2015 10:58 am GMT


If the developed countries convert to renewables, it will not only buy time, it will lower the cost of renewables and encourage further innovation. If solar and geothermal become cheaper than coal, developing countries will have an incentive to switch to renewables. Pressure can also be brought to bear through trade penalties and sanctions, if seen necessary.

The other issue in many places, which is likely to be more immediate than climate change, although exacerbated by it, is depletion of fresh water and soil resources to sustain agriculture.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 2, 2015 3:45 pm GMT

John, it’s true that “It normally takes 5-10 years to design/fund/permit and build/startup most major projects such as new centralized large power generation plants”.

This is, however, the New Normal, and it turns out vaunted “disruption” moves at a snail’s pace compared to the accomplishments of other periods in U.S. history. In 1931, workers began boring three miles of tunnels through solid rock, 56 feet in diameter, to prepare a site on the Colorado River for Hoover Dam. This project of unprecedented scope and complexity began generating clean electricity five years later.

Whether this or that projection pans out, it ultimately comes down to leadership. Could the U.S. feasibly engineer a 26% reduction in GHG emissions by 2025? The answer is yes, if it wasn’t for presidential candidates breathtakingly short of courage and intelligence, and a legislative process with the integrity of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 2, 2015 3:56 pm GMT

The challenge in the U.S. is that total renewable energy has only increased by 4% of total energy consumption over the past 10 years.  Lower carbon natural gas growth has exceeded total renewables by about 50% during the same period.  Despite the fairly generous renewables government subsidies and strong regulatory support over the past 10 years, increased natural gas production-consumption has been the dominate contribution towards reducing coal consumption and associated carbon emissions within the U.S.  Solar and geothermal growth since 2005 have been a very small fraction (<10%) of total U.S. renewables growth.  Geothermal growth is constrained by cost and available geotherm formations and solar must generally compete with lower cost (centralized) wind power.

The real challenge in Developed Countries in truly reducing their carbon emissions vs. Developing Countries is the fact that taxing fossil fuels energy related goods & services (carbon taxes, VAT’s, etc.) has led to increasing carbon leakage to countries such as China and India.  Agreed, some form of sanctions or government actions may be needed to prevent further increased carbon leakage and provide the incentives needed to eliminate current and future carbon leakage, which compromises the global-net carbon emissions of most Developed Countries’ carbon reductin programs.

Your concern with possible environmental impacts on agriculture of water & soil shortages has another potential negative impact that could compromise renewables growth in future years.  Most of the increases of renewables in the U.S.have been due to increased biofuels production-consumption.  This, of course,  relies heavily on adequate agriculture soil, water and fertilizers.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 2, 2015 4:29 pm GMT

Bob, the major constraints in building most large projects these days are often regulatory in nature.  Yes, the Hoover Dam was constructed at an unprecedented rate compared to previous and current projects.  Unfortunately 112 workers were killed during construction, which led to current OSHA department and safety regulations.  These increased regulations have definitely improved workers safety, but have also led to extended construction schedules in many cases.  The major constraint to large projects today is most often the permitting process.  Back in the 1930’s the Hoover Dam permitting process just required general government approval by a very small number of Agencies and landowners.  I am sure you understand how this process has grown to near dysfunctional performance over the years.  The combination of the NIMBY crowd and other special interests have delayed many major projects numerous years and led to cancelling a large number of projects; even after the project originator made numerous concessions in order to hopefully satisfy the opposition and complete the project within a reasonably schedule and cost.

Agreed, achieving 26% carbon reduction 2005-2025 is feasible from an engineering-construction schedule perspective.  The challenge is more than just political leadership.  Many changes will be needed to the extremely numerous and redundant federal/state agencies-regulations, and the ability of NIMBY’s/special interests to tie-up projects in the permit/legal arena for numerous years; despite the potential benefits, both economic and environmental.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 2, 2015 11:01 pm GMT


I think your reference to the “past 10 years” brings up an interesting question: to what extent can we extrapolate from the past on this issue?

I think, not much. I think we are approaching a sort of cusp, after which things change fundamentally. I see the cost of solar dropping another 50% in a few years, then cost curves cross over, and then everything starts to look very different.




J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on Jun 4, 2015 2:59 am GMT


Yes, the technology exists, but the time to install lower carbon and renewable energy technologies over the next 10 years in order to achieve President Obama’s 26% carbon reduction target is definitely not practical.  The President appears to lack any well defined plan or solutions to achieve his proposed U.S. carbon reduction commitment at the upcoming Paris COP21.  This leads one to possibly believe that this is just another ‘legacy’ action that will achieve nothing significant in reality, but put him in the history books for taking this action to prevent future climate change.

The real solution may involve some form of significant carbon taxes.  Not the ‘feebate’ programs that are just income redistribution plans in disguise, but a real tax for everyone that will discourage their consumption of fossil fuels and provide economic incentives for more aggressively developing renewables.   Since your analysis indicates that GDP and per capita energy efficiencies are not likely to offset the growth in the total U.S. GDP and population in the future, a carbon tax may be the only feasible solution.  The ten year schedule timeframe will still be a problem since implementing a carbon tax too aggressively could plunge the U.S. economy back into another great recession.


John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 4, 2015 3:11 pm GMT

Hops, you could be right in that past development patterns could ultimately change in a more positive direction.  But, even if the cost of solar panels drops by another 50%, this expense only becomes a minor part of the total installed solar PV system expense/cost.  Other expenses such as the power inverters, controls, wiring, panels framing, and of course the labor expenses to install and maintain the solar PV systems will continue to inflate in future years.  This means that the costs of installed new solar PV systems will bottom out sometime in the future and then increase with inflation.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jun 4, 2015 3:51 pm GMT

JE, dysfunctional carbon markets?  The current EU carbon markets are helping make Commercial Companies & Traders wealthier and provide Governments with additional tax revenues.  For each unit carbon credit bought/sold or traded Traders get generous commissions and Governments use the taxes for their political priorities.  California is an example in the U.S. of how Governments use carbon tax credit revenues for political policies/priorities not directly related to reducing the state’s carbon footprint.  In California the carbon tax revenues are being directed to and spent on other priorities such as affordable housing, reducing state deficit spending, the bullet train to somewhere, etc.  Since California is possibly planning to apply a new carbon tax to the consumption of petroleum motor fuels, a new added state gasoline/diesel tax, this will raise further revenues (and maintain this state’s fuel costs at U.S. record highs).  With the U.S.’s current-growing historic Federal debt, an ‘affordable’ carbon tax could help eventually pay this record government debt off in future years.  The question becomes: “When and would a Federal Carbon Tax regulation be feasible politically?”.

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »