This is Earth.Org’s profile of the climate change vulnerabilities, updated emissions pledges and environmental policies by sector of the United States of America
- Population (2021): 336,997,624 (3rd most populated country).
- GDP per capita: USD$69,288 (Ranked 5th globally).
- Emissions (2021): 4.46 GT (Ranked second highest emitting country).
- Earth.Org Sustainability Ranking: 197th.
Pledges & Targets
- Paris Agreement & NDC: The US’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), last updated in April 2021, targets the following:
- Achieve a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 50-52% by 2030 according to a 2005 baseline.
- Road to Net-Zero: The US has pledged to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and hit net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
- Clean Energy Goals: The US aims to achieve an emissions-free power sector by 2035.
- Eliminating Emissions: The US has pledged to cut its methane emissions, a highly potent greenhouse gas, by 30% by 2030.
State of Affairs
The US is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases and the second-largest current emitter. It is therefore imperative that the US play an active role in implementing strong environmental policies and reduce its impacts on global temperature rise and environmental degradation.
The Biden administration has changed the course of US environmental policy after Donald Trump presided over a period of continuous climate policy rollbacks. The US is currently negotiating the passing of a USD$2.3 trillion economic recovery plan from the COVID-19 pandemic focused on modernising the country’s infrastructure, increasing investments into clean energy and creating millions of new green jobs. The US is attempting to reclaim its position as a global climate action leader, and Biden is initiating these attempts by investing in the country’s capacity for innovation and clean energy, setting higher domestic targets and rallying its allies into doing the same.
While the US under Biden has announced high targets, it remains unclear how the country plans on reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, a feat which will take substantial investments and legislative support. Political polarisation in the US and partisan divides on approaches to tackle climate change make it unclear if current targets and pledges will survive across administrations if they are not enshrined into irreversible law.
Climate Vulnerability & Readiness
The ND-GAIN Country Index by the University of Notre Dame summarises a country’s vulnerability to climate change and other global challenges in combination with its readiness to improve resilience. The more vulnerable a country is, the lower their vulnerability score, while the more ready a country is to improve its resilience, the higher its readiness score will be, on a scale between 0 and 1. The United States’ scores are:
- Vulnerability: 0.35 (ranks 29th out of 192 countries).
- Readiness: 0.69 (ranks 18th out of 192 countries).
As a geographically large and diverse country, the US has several physical vulnerabilities to the worsening impacts of climate change, but also possesses high readiness and resilience given its economic wealth. Per the World Bank, the main climate vulnerabilities of the US are related to extreme storms, floods and wildfires, with extreme temperatures and droughts also posing serious challenges. However, the US’s large size, varied geography and unevenly distributed population makes different parts of the country vulnerable to different forms of climate change impacts.
The US possesses 91 676 km² of rural land where elevation is below 5 metres, the country with the third highest amount of land with this designation. These areas are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, although the most vulnerable areas are concentrated around the country’s Southeast, where land is mostly low-lying and highly susceptible to flooding. Extreme storms also tend to affect this area more, given the severity of the Atlantic hurricane season in the region which will exacerbate storm surges causing further flooding.
Wildfire seasons are already increasing in frequency, intensity and duration; they are also concentrated in certain specific areas, although have been increasing in range in recent seasons. The American West Coast is most vulnerable to these impacts, but wildfires have been progressively spreading further east. Wildfires are particularly dangerous in the southwestern coastal areas of the US, which is home to a very dry climate and some of the most highly populated pockets of the country. As temperatures rise in the coming decades, rainfall will foreseeably decrease, the climate will become drier and the large human population will further deplete already scarce water resources, increasing the risk of and vulnerability to fires.
In other regions of the US, heat waves, droughts, erratic precipitation, floods and insect outbreaks will intensify as a direct result of climate change. These impacts will have a direct effect on declining water supplies, loss of agricultural yields, damage to infrastructure, rampant property damage, worsening health impacts in hotter cities and uncontrolled flooding and erosion of coastal areas with large populations.
Environmental Policies by Sector
- Renewables made up 8% of the US’s total energy share in 2017, per IRENA.
- Between 2012 and 2017, the share of renewables in the US grew by 18%.
- Fossil fuels still make up around 80-83% of the US’s total energy consumption.
- Low-carbon non-renewables, primarily nuclear, contribute to around 10% of the US’s energy needs.
The US is still largely reliant on fossil fuels, but the share of renewable energy in its total primary energy supply (TPES) is growing rapidly. The US has been able to scale back coal’s prominence in its TPES, and is now mostly reliant on petroleum and natural gas. Of renewable energy sources, the US primarily generates energy from biomass sources, although wind and hydroelectric power are also prominent. The fastest growing renewable energy sectors are wind and solar.
- Per the EIA, transportation accounted for 26% of the US’s energy use in 2020.
- Petroleum still accounts for the vast majority of the US’s transportation sector energy use, at around 90% as of 2020.
- Electricity provided less than 1% of total energy consumption from transportation, and nearly 100% in mass transit systems mostly located in urban areas.
- The US aims for electric vehicles to account for 50% of all car sales by 2030.
The US remains one of the most highly mobile countries in the world, where energy consumption for transportation is consistently high. The US has historically lacked sufficient investments into mass intra-city public transportation infrastructure, and the rate of vehicle ownership per capita remains among the highest in the world. The electric vehicle market in the US is growing, but remains marginal with EVs accounting for 2.3% of total vehicle sales.
- Per the UN, around 13% of total terrestrial spaces in the US was protected in 2018, 114th in the world as a percentage of land. Additionally, around 26% of coastal waters are protected.
- Per the Yale Environmental Performance Index, 82.66% of the US’s population is urbanised.
- Yale EPI ranked the US 31st in the world in terms of ecosystem vitality, which measures how well countries preserve, protect, and enhance their ecosystems and the services they provide.
- Per Global Forest Watch, the US possessed 252 million hectares of natural forest in 2010, extending over 29% of its land area. In 2020, it had lost 1.59 million hectares of natural forest.
The current presidential administration has tentatively explored the idea of implementing policy that would be in line with a global 30 by 30 biodiversity conservation plan. This plan would see 30% of the world’s land and 30% of the world’s oceans rehabilitated and protected by 2030. However, while Biden has issued an executive order committing to this goal, the bulk of his administration’s environmental policy thus far has focused on climate change mitigation and preparedness.
- Per the global NGO Earth’s Endangered Creatures, the US (continental and non) possesses 2 269 endangered species, of which 714 are plant species and 1 555 are animal species.
- The US has not enshrined into federal law any legislation that recognises the sentience of animal species.
The US has passed some legislation that addresses the treatment of wildlife and the basic rights of non-human species. These include the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 which provides a framework for the humane treatment of certain animals in specific circumstances, and the more recent Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act of 2019 which made it a federal crime to intentionally harm animals. But there remain many animals, including birds, rats, mice and horses used for research, that only possess minimal protections. Legislation also tends to intentionally leave out protecting animals commonly used for agricultural or aquaculture purposes, notably poultry and certain species of fish.
- Per IQAir, in 2020 the US averaged 9.60µg/m³ (micrograms of air pollutants per cubic metre of air), ranking 84th out of the 106 countries and territories where data was collected.
- According to the index, no major city in the US experiences frequent instances of ambient air pollution serious enough to be considered threatening to human health.
- Per the EPA, the US generated a total 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2018, the equivalent of nearly 2.2kg per person per day.
- Per the World Bank, the US generates one of the highest amounts of waste per capita in the world.
While the US has been able to largely keep its air pollution levels in check despite continuous economic growth, the country has not been as successful in mitigating its waste generation. Since enacting the Clean Air Act in 1963, the US has been able to comprehensively regulate air quality, even in densely populated urban environments. However, ongoing burning of fossil fuels were responsible for an estimated 230,000 premature U.S. deaths in 2018 alone, per the 2020 World Air Quality Report, and the country has historically placed minorities and low-income groups at a higher risk of contracting diseases and dying from causes linked to air pollution.