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April 22, 2021, 2:17 p.m. EDT

The technical details of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions in half are easy compared with the profound changes in society that would be needed

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By Morgan Bazilian, and David Victor

President Joe Biden  announced an ambitious new national climate target  at a livestreamed summit of world leaders on Thursday: He pledged to cut U.S. carbon emissions in half by the end of this decade and aim for net zero emissions by 2050.

Breaking news: Biden pledges to cut U.S. greenhouse gases 50% by 2030

The new goal is a big deal because it formally brings together the many different ideas on infrastructure, the budget, federal regulatory policy, and disparate actions in the states and industry for transforming the U.S. economy into a highly competitive, yet very green giant.

Read: The ‘greening’ of the S&P 500: 7 charts for Earth Day

It also signals to the rest of the world that “ America is back ” and prepared to work on climate change after four years of delay under the Trump administration.

Stopping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius—the aim of the Paris climate agreement—will require an immediate global effort that can transform energy systems and make emissions plummet at rates never observed before in history.

Statements from the 40 world leaders  at the summit  reflected both ambitious visions for that future—and the reality that words don’t always match actions on the ground.

Formally, the new U.S. target is what’s known under the Paris climate agreement as a “ nationally determined contribution .” In effect, it is a  nonbinding pledge to the rest of the world . Beyond the headline figures—including the new promise to cut emissions 50-52% by 2030 compared with 2005 levels—Biden’s pledge pays attention to the need to adapt to the climate changes already under way and build resilience.

Nearly all countries are making new commitments in the run-up to a big United Nations climate  conference in November . With the U.S. pledge,  about two-thirds  of the current global emissions come from countries that have now pledged to reach net zero emissions by midcentury.

We’ve both been involved with climate policy and the international negotiations for decades, and these new goals show real momentum.

But will the new U.S. pledge have an impact on emissions that’s as huge as the pledge sounds?

Can the U.S. meet its new goal?

Already there’s been a lot of  gushing about the boldness of the U.S. goal , by companies,  advocacy groups , and  academic think tanks , often pointing to studies that find a  50% emissions cut is achievable .

Our chief concern is industrial reality—cutting emissions by half within a decade implies transforming the electricity system, transportation, industry and agriculture.

These systems don’t turn on a dime. The goal setting is the easy part: It is largely a combination of technical feasibility with political palatability. The tough work is getting it done.

Also from The Conversation: Hydrogen is the one clean energy source everyone seems to like, so why aren’t we using it more to fight climate change?

Pretty much everything will need to line up quickly—policies that are credible and durable, along with industrial responses.  As often happens with technological change , most analysts are overestimating how quickly things can transform in the near term, and probably underestimating how profound change will have to be into the more distant future.

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