The world would never have remembered if John F. Kennedy had pledged that America would get 83 percent of the way to the moon by the end of the decade. While 190,093 miles would certainly qualify as a long way, longer than a human being had ever travelled from home in 1962, it wouldn’t have been far enough to take that historic one small step.
President Obama is joining other world leaders in New York on Earth Day to sign the Paris agreement, formalizing their commitment to take action on global warming. It is an enormous accomplishment, and a natural time to consider the President’s climate legacy. President Obama is not only the first to reduce U.S. climate pollution, but he’s also the first President to convince developing nations to take real action. While his climate record is impressive already, President Obama will have a chance to go farther later this year—to own the issue for all of history.
In Paris, world leaders agreed that nations collectively must reach zero net emissions in the second half of the century. This means that the world must reduce annual climate pollution to the point where it equals the carbon taken out of the air by forests or future innovative technologies. However, leaders left Paris without defining how much each country will do and how fast each country will do it. Under the Paris Agreement, nations did agree to put forward national plans for reducing climate pollution through 2050. The United States has said it will come up with its plan by the end of this year, before the end of the Obama administration. President Obama is taking this task seriously and has already helped convince leaders of other nations—from China to Canada—to follow suit.
What remains unclear is how ambitious these national goals will be. In the past, President Obama has pledged that the United States will reduce emissions 83 percent by 2050. That is not a goal the world or history will remember. It’s not a destination, just a mile marker. It’s neither a bugle call nor a clean victory.
To date, no major economy in the world – no member of the G20 – has committed to totally decarbonizing its economy by a specific date. President Obama should take the opportunity to be first when he presents the U.S. plan later this year. It will be his last best chance to be remembered as a visionary on a major global issue. The most historic action President Obama can take before he leaves office is to make a date with zero.
A U.S. pledge to achieve zero net emissions by 2050 would inspire other developed nations to follow suit. Some lawmakers in the United Kingdom and Germany are calling for similar targets already. Canada and Australia have new governments looking to lead on climate change. If President Obama leads on zero, other developed nations would join us. A U.S. zero goal also would encourage major emerging economies, such as China and India, to agree at this year’s G20 summit to set ambitious 2050 climate goals that place those nations on track to reach net zero soon afterward.
A date with zero is achievable, by scaling up investments in technologies to put less climate pollution into the air and by taking more carbon out of the air. Projects like Mission Innovation, which was announced in Paris by President Obama, Bill Gates and a host of world leaders, are focusing on accelerating the clean energy revolution. Doing a better job of protecting and restoring the world’s forests would harness their enormous capacity for carbon sequestration.
There is no substitute for being the first with a bold vision. For the entire world to get to zero net emissions in the second half of the century, countries like the United States need to go first. We can choose a date with zero, because the same thing is true now that was true in 1962: an ambitious goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, and that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.