The United States: The 2021 Climate Year in Review

The United States: The 2021 Climate Year in Review


  • Rejoined the Paris Agreement
  • A New NDC Pledge to the Paris Agreement to Reduce Emissions by 50-52% by 2030 and reach Net Zero Emissions by 2050
  • Established a National Climate Task Force to Support Integration of Climate Policies in All Federal Agencies
  • Committed to Conserving 30% of US Lands and Oceans by 2030
  • Committed to Having the Federal Government Run on 100% Carbon Pollution-Free Electricity by 2030
  • Committed to Achieving Net Zero Emissions from Federal Operations by 2050
  • Passed the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act
  • Revised Emission Standards for Passenger Cars and Light Trucks



2021 was an eventful year for climate action in the United States. We saw the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who hit the ground running with climate commitments both domestically and internationally. In addition, Congress considered two major pieces of legislation with implications for both climate mitigation and resilience, with mixed results. Here are four landmark events that have shaped American climate action this year.

  • Rejoining the Paris Agreement. On his first day in office, President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, which former President Trump had disengaged with beginning in 2017. While becoming a Party to the Paris Agreement again does not in itself reduce emissions, it creates a framework through which the United States will decarbonize and build credibility for its climate diplomacy efforts, helping to catalyze action by other major emitters. These diplomacy efforts included hosting a Leaders Summit on Climate in April, at which multiple countries announced new emissions reduction goals; the launch of the Global Methane Pledge at COP26, through which more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030; new finance plans to help vulnerable and developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change; and other actions. As a Party to the Paris Agreement, the United States submitted its nationally determined contribution (NDC) this year, pledging to reduce emissions by 50-52% compared to 2005 levels by 2030, and to reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050. While this pledge is ambitious compared to other major economies, it may not be enough to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees C. The United Nations predicts that, even if all nations meet their NDCs, we could still experience 7 degrees C of warming by 2100; the United States, as one of the world’s largest emitters, will likely need to raise its ambition to make up the difference. To regain respect at the international stage, the United States will also need to move beyond merely setting goals, to truly delivering on its climate commitments.
  • Taking federal government action to combat climate change. President Biden has taken a whole-of-government approach to climate change, integrating climate mitigation and adaptation into the operations of each federal agency. In January, he signed an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which established the National Climate Task Force, directed federal agencies to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, set a goal to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030, and created the Justice40 Initiative to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of these investments to disadvantaged communities, among other provisions. Then in December, he signed an Executive Order on Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability, which requires the federal government to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030, acquire 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2035, and arrive at net-zero emissions from federal operations by 2050, among other provisions. These executive orders together establish the federal government as a leader in climate action and will significantly reduce the government’s carbon footprint. The orders will also catalyze the growth of low-carbon industries by leveraging the federal government’s purchasing power to grow markets for renewable energy, electric vehicles, and more.
  • Passing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), but leaving a major climate bill hanging in the balance. Congress seemed poised to pass two landmark bills in 2021, but the year ended with a partial success. In November, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was passed into law, marking the largest investment in American infrastructure in years. The law has some impactful climate components, including $15 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure, buses, and transit, $21 billion in environmental remediation (including fossil fuel sites), $65 billion for clean energy, transmission, and grid investments, and more. While these provisions are positive for the climate, some analysts warn the law overall could either bring emissions up or down, depending on how funds are used. That’s because the bill also includes significant investments in highways, airports, and other “business-as-usual” items that can complicate the transition to a net-zero economy. To make a larger dent in U.S. emissions, Congress considered the Build Back Better Act (BBBA), which was originally intended to accompany the IIJA but later stalled in the Senate and now has an uncertain future. BBBA would be the most significant climate bill ever passed in the United States, with roughly $555 billion in climate investments, including billions in clean energy tax credits, wildfire mitigation, transportation electrification, and more. The provisions in BBBA would result in significant emissions benefits, bringing the United States closer to its goal of reducing emissions at least 50% by 2030. The Act may be considered again in 2022, likely with modifications to reduce its spending. Ensuring the climate provisions don’t get cut from any revised legislation will be top priority for climate advocates next year.
  • Revising greenhouse gas emissions standards for passenger cars and light trucks. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized its standards affecting greenhouse gas emissions for car and light truck model years 2023 through 2026. These standards are the most stringent ever set for light-duty vehicles and will result in average fuel economy values of 40 miles per gallon (mpg) by model year 2026, as opposed to the standards they replace, which would have achieved only 32 mpg. This increased efficiency will result in 1 billion tons of avoided CO2 emissions through 2050 and cut the carbon footprint of the transportation sector, which is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.


2021 has been a marked improvement from the past four years of climate inaction under President Trump. While some successes have come in the form of laws and rulemaking, making them cumbersome to reverse, many are subject to changing political climates and can be undone by future presidencies (such as executive actions and international commitments). For long-lasting climate action, the United States will need to pass legislation that enshrines its goals into law and ensures the country is on an irreversible path to reach 1.5 degrees C.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard United States Country Manager Christina Cilento


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