- Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 could be "surprisingly feasible," with costs running $1 per day per person or just 0.4% of the U.S GDP, according to a new report from the University of San Francisco, the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and consulting firm Evolved Energy Research.
- No matter which decarbonization strategy the U.S. ultimately adopts, technical limitations in other fields mean the electricity sector must be among the first to pursue aggressive decarbonization, eliminating 65-70% of its emissions by 2035, according to Jim Williams, the paper's lead author and an associate professor at the University of San Francisco.
- Despite the need for carbon-free electricity, excessively ambitious decarbonization targets could actually undermine the nation's success. "If you look at the reality of what that would entail on the ground, the impact would be such that I would anticipate any policy that pushes that change along would swiftly face blowback and ultimately be abandoned," said Ryan Jones, co-founder of Evolved Energy Research. "That is the worst outcome in terms of this transition."
Climate change may be a "real emergency situation," Jones said, but to successfully transition to a carbon neutral economy the U.S. electric sector should take cues from the tortoise and not the hare.
Within about a decade, the U.S. will have its choice of a variety of economical strategies for combating climate change, according to the new paper by Jones, Williams and their colleagues, published in AGU Advances. But for the next ten years, technical limitations mean the course is relatively set. After the mid-2030s, the paper anticipates that at least eight viable pathways to a carbon neutral economy will emerge. But before 2030, the success of those eventual strategies rest on the same set of critical actions.
First and foremost, according to Williams, the electric sector must cut its own carbon emissions by at least two-thirds. This is a necessary first step, Williams said, because carbon-free electricity enables multiple downstream strategies such as electrification or the development of alternative fuels. But it's also a matter of simple pragmatism: it is possible to make dramatic strides toward decarbonized electric generation with existing technology. The same cannot be said of, for example, airliners.
"There are no-brainers up front that derive from the science of the situation," Williams said. "At some point you get to more difficult applications like air travel. ... There are going to be applications where you need other decarbonized energy sources, specifically liquid fuels, and for those things we're not as clear what the ultimate best strategy is going to be."
The good news, Williams said, is that achieving this reduction in emissions from electric generation should be relatively easy to achieve with steps such as eliminating coal from the energy portfolio and increasing wind and solar development to a total of 500 GW, just 3.5 times the capacity of existing renewable resources.
It's also unnecessary to completely eliminate carbon from electrical generation, at least up front, according to Williams. According to his team's work, the 2035 target currently proposed by the Biden administration makes for a nice aspiration, but isn't necessarily essential to long-term decarbonization goals.
"At 2030 you take stock and see where you're at with things," he said. "In our scenarios, you don't need to get to zero carbon in electricity by 2035 as long as you're doing the other things you need to be doing."
In fact, rushing to achieve full decarbonization ahead of schedule could actually prove detrimental in the long-term, Jones said. Doing so could result in a forced transition before science and the markets identify the most cost-effective solutions to eliminating emissions from the most difficult sources, and it could also trigger societal resistance if the transition takes place so quickly that it disrupts the economy by putting fossil fuel-dependent companies out of business before they and their employees have a chance to adapt.
"The paradox here is … the systemic nature" of the transition, Jones said. "The shift we are talking about is one where we need to plot a consistent, slightly conservative course because one of the biggest dangers in this is if we have mis-starts and we let things like our ambitions get out ahead of our ability to achieve this in a technically and socially sound way. This is a marathon, not a sprint."