Unprecedented forest fires in the drought-stricken western United States. Tropical storms and rising seas threatening the Gulf and Atlantic coast. Scorching heat over large parts of the country. As climate change unfolds before our eyes, what can the US do to reduce its share of the greenhouse gas emissions it causes sharply and rapidly?
The Biden administration has committed itself to reducing emissions by 50% by 2030 below 2005 levels. This is a critical first step of a global energy transition that should reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century to limit heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F) and thus the worst impact of to prevent climate change.
Twenty years ago, I would have viewed the American 2030 promise as nonsense. But a new study in the journal Science that I co-authored, which compares results from six independent analyzes conducted by academic, industrial and non-governmental organization researchers, lays out a roadmap to the 50% target that is both feasible and is affordable
So what has changed since the early 2000s?
At the time, it seemed as if U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would continue to rise indefinitely without major policies. However, cheap natural gas and declining costs of solar and wind power, combined with some modest state and federal renewable energy programs, led to a more than 20% reduction in annual emissions between 2005 and 2020.
With that reduction under our belts, achieving the 2030 target will require a further reduction of about 37% from current levels. That puts the target closer, but it’s still a bigger drop in 10 years than the U.S. has achieved over the past 15 years.
Our study shows that by exploiting the declining costs of zero and low carbon energy resources in a more aggressive and focused way, the US can reach its target within eight years – all while significantly reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, including expensive gasoline. reduce. , and cutting back on air pollution, climate and health impacts as a result of their combustion.
A new roadmap for the US energy transition
Although there are differences between the six analyzes in our study, everyone finds that most of the necessary emission reductions – about 70% to 90% – can come from the electric power and transport sectors. This can be achieved through a further transition to solar and wind power as the costs for those technologies continue to decline.
Sun and wind can not do it all; we have found that natural gas – some of it coupled with technology that captures the carbon emissions released during its combustion – can play nuclear and hydropower supporting roles.
Much of the necessary reduction in emissions – around 10% to 25% – can be achieved through a rapid transition to electric light-duty vehicles along with additional reduction in freight transport. Our study shows that electric vehicles, which accounted for about 4% of new car sales in the US in 2021, will have to rise to between 34% and 100% of sales by 2030 to reach that target. This is a big leap. But it now appears that battery costs have dropped enough to enable the manufacture of EVs at a cost equivalent to that of conventional vehicles. In addition, EVs are typically cheaper to operate and maintain, further reducing total cost of ownership.
While our study finds that most of the necessary emission reductions can come from electric power and transportation, other sectors of the economy – including industry, agriculture and buildings – must also shift to low- and zero-carbon energy sources to reach the 2030 target. The key challenges for these sectors include the development of technology to eliminate emissions from energy-intensive processes, such as chemical, iron and steel production, and to apply existing homes and businesses in time with electric heat pumps.
That’s a lot to achieve in just eight years. This will require an unprecedented expansion of electric power generation and transmission capacity, a rapid build-up of electric vehicle production and sales, and a nationwide deployment of EV recharging stations.
Climate and health benefits
At the same time, by helping to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the implementation of this roadmap will reduce the national cost of damage caused by climate change while encouraging innovation. And the significant reduction in air pollution due to the burning of fossil fuels will also reduce related health costs.
For example, the smog produced by the burning of fossil fuels exacerbates asthma and related respiratory diseases, leading to premature deaths. Some of the six analyzes we looked at found that the reduction in premature deaths – which equates to lost productivity and additional health costs – of reduced particulate matter in the air alone was enough to cover the cost of implementing US energy. offset road map. the study.
Given the scale and pace of the transformations needed to achieve the U.S. 2030 climate goal, immediate action must be taken and sustained through the decade to succeed. Many states have already made strong commitments and implemented policies to achieve this, but a coordinated national strategy is needed.
The six analyzes we reviewed assume different combinations of strategies, including tax incentives, subsidies, regulations, and carbon pricing. Every approach has its pros and cons, but any successful policy must focus on affordable and equitable solutions and recognize that one size fits all. For example, transportation solutions in rural areas are likely to differ from those applicable in dense urban areas, and new construction can sometimes be more cost-effective than repairing older buildings.
The Biden administration’s proposed path forward, the Build Back Better plan targeting funding to help communities build resilience against the impact of climate change and expanding clean energy, is halted in Congress. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.