The United States can be imagined in 2030 if the country realizes President Joe Biden’s climate ambitions.
Every last of the country’s 191 coal-fired power plants is closed or on the way out, and natural gas in the electricity sector is declining rapidly. Renewable energies supply more than half of our electricity needs, and offshore wind turbines and large utility-scale solar systems are widespread. Much of the new car sales are zero-emission electric vehicles, while most or all of the bus fleet has been converted to electricity. Gas-powered devices and buildings in new buildings are a thing of the past.
So what’s the plan to actually get there?
Biden’s macroeconomic goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 doesn’t say much about what it will look like sector by sector. As Vox employee David Roberts wrote, with the new engagement Biden only “rallies the troops and points them in the right direction”. How its policies can outlast its administration and how Congress reacts to them is even more important.
Fortunately, a lot of smart people have come up with a roadmap that they think is very doable.
At least a dozen studies recently published by think tanks, scientists and activists show how emissions can be cut in half by 2030. The White House Climate Action Group will also release a sector-by-sector plan later this year.
While they all make slightly different assumptions, experts agree that we don’t have to wait for technological breakthroughs to tackle three of the most polluting parts of the economy. “We have solutions available,” said Jake Schmidt, Defense Council international program director for natural resources.
There is also the much bigger, longer-term price to pay: carbon neutrality by 2050. That will be much more difficult because then the country will have to see great progress in challenging sectors for which we do not yet have easy solutions.
To reduce pollution to zero by mid-century, the United States and the world must look beyond clean electricity and cars to other major sources of greenhouse gas pollution instead. These include heavy industry, agriculture, land use strategies, and international shipping, which are responsible for much of the world’s carbon and methane pollution.
But the world can’t wait to wait a few more decades to figure out those hard-to-decarbonize sectors. “You have to work backwards from zero to zero [in 2050] and find out how to get back to the present, ”said Pete Ogden, Vice President for Energy, Climate and Environment at the United Nations Foundation.
The end of coal, the decline of gas and the rise of electric vehicles
All studies from America Is All In, NRDC, Energy Innovation, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory agree on one thing: the remaining coal-fired power plants in the US must close before 2030 (barring a wonderful breakthrough in carbon capture and storage).
One way to get there is with a national clean power goal that has been passed by Congress. Biden advocated a plan to pass a standard that would lower the renewable energy utility’s targets to 80 percent zero-emission fuel by 2030 and gas dependency by 2035. The aim was to increase emission-free sources from 40 percent of the grid (including nuclear power along with renewable energies). His EPA is also already working on new power plant regulations to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.
As the electricity sector gets cleaner, so will devices, buildings and cars that are plugged into the electricity grid. Biden has funds to top up EV charging points in its infrastructure plan, but much more has to follow, namely ambitious fuel economy standards that are driving cars, light trucks, and buses away from gasoline.
Nothing is easy here either. It depends on Congress finally adopting a national climate policy. Biden’s $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan is bringing serious money to the electricity sector: the plan totals $ 1 trillion in clean energy investments, more than the overall 2009 congressional incentive harnessing the power of the federal government to promote clean energy use and extend clean energy tax credits and create clean energy block grants.
But to truly mark the end of coal, the nation needs a regulatory policy that sets a clear direction that will outlast political fluctuations from president to president. The Biden government has proposed a National Clean Power Standard (CES) to ensure the strongest possible signal.
“The Biden management target of 100 percent clean energy by 2035 implies an interim target of at least 80 percent by 2030. Proven and promising technologies can get us there, although the exact combination of clean resources is influenced by market forces. A strong federal CES is required to support consistent investments in these low-cost, low-carbon resources and technologies, ”writes the Energy Innovation research group in its report.
Similarly, more electric vehicle chargers, infrastructure and tax credits could make electric vehicles a more attractive choice for consumers. However, this is meaningless if gas-guzzling SUV sales continue to rise. Combating transport emissions also requires national standards for more energy-efficient fleets.
Big advances in these two sectors would address America’s two largest sources of pollution: traffic, which accounts for 29 percent of emissions, and electricity, which accounts for 25 percent.
We have to look seriously at industrial emissions
After cars and transportation, heavy industry has the largest climate footprint in the United States at 23 percent (and 22 percent worldwide). Globally, 10 percent of emissions come from burning fossil fuels for the intense heat required to manufacture cement, steel and petrochemicals. These plants are often found in low-income and colored communities, so removing their climate pollution would also save lives from the risks of air pollution.
It is possible to eliminate pollution in industry by focusing on energy efficiency and relying on the cleaner power grid. A technology that is already available to reduce industrial emissions by 2030 is used for these sectors.
Here the roadmap is getting grim because there are no clear alternatives to fossil fuels in cement production. This is where new technologies could come into play, including the capture and storage of carbon and hydrogen.
The Ministry of Energy is betting that “green” hydrogen will be an important part of the answer. As Justine Calma of The Verge explains, to really be “green” hydrogen fuel would have to be made with renewable energy, although this is currently too expensive to do on a large scale.
Energy Minister Jennifer Granholm announced at the summit that DOE wants to reduce the price of hydrogen by 80 percent in order to be “competitive with natural gas”. This would indeed be a game changer, but it requires a huge investment in research and deployment.
We cannot ignore agriculture, land use and international shipping
Some sectors are unlikely to change significantly until after 2030. Agriculture and landfills are the main sources of pollution, accounting for 40 percent and 20 percent of global methane emissions, respectively. And global shipping and flying are smaller, but still increasing, sources of pollution.
There is a similar theme for all of this: while there are alternatives to fossil fuels, the alternatives are still too expensive or too young to be put into practice without massive government investment.
Methane from agriculture and landfills is harder to control because so much of it is related to our meat consumption and food waste. Groups like the Environmental Defense Fund have urged the Biden government to begin reducing methane emissions by 40 percent by 2030, most of which can be attributed to reducing methane pollution from oil and gas operations.
Biden’s Earth Day summit showed that countries are increasing their investments in decarbonizing these more difficult industries, such as a new partnership between the United States and Denmark to work on shipping. “We know the technologies we need to decarbonise shipping, so investments are needed and they need to be expanded,” said Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry. “It is up to all nations to send a clear signal to the industry so that they can make these investments in the near future.”
Regarding the methane problem in agriculture, the White House has not established a specific strategy. And he certainly doesn’t forbid meat.
The government has gone furthest so far when Agriculture Minister Tom Vilsack announced a vague new initiative “to accelerate global agricultural innovation through increased research and development”. And the US announced an initiative with the United Arab Emirates to launch the Agricultural Innovation for the Climate mission, which will focus on research and development. R&D could focus on promising carbon sequestration crops and feed that reduce the methane footprint of cows.
Climate solutions will not occur “miraculously”. We have to do the work.
Basically, to offset the United States’ share as the world’s largest historical polluter, it must learn to walk and walk at the same time. The country can set aggressive short-term goals for clean electricity, followed by cars, while laying the foundation for long-term action in areas such as industrial emissions, agriculture, and land use.
Technology won’t step in to save us a breakthrough in 2049. The next nine years are critical to every part of fossil fuel economics, not just where we get our electricity. Jake Schmidt of NRDC said, “You obviously can’t wait to find the solutions by 2030 and then hope that miraculously they are there.”