Climate 411

Getting 100% Clear on 100% Clean

Authored by Steve Capanna, Director, U.S. Climate Policy & Analysis

Scientists agree that to maximize our chances of averting the worst impacts of climate change, we must stop adding climate pollution to the atmosphere by soon after mid-century. As one of the world’s most advanced economies, the U.S. must reach that goal no later than 2050 – which means transitioning to a 100% clean economy. If this sounds like an ambitious goal, that’s because it is. But it is also what’s needed to protect our economy, our health and our kids’ future.

Why a 100% Clean Economy?

For decades, scientists have warned that catastrophic climate change will result from continued unchecked greenhouse gas emissions. And for decades, our emissions have continued to grow.

Last fall, a Special Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body made up of leading scientists from around the world and responsible for assessing the science related to climate change, found that to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, it will be necessary for the world to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions (adding no more pollution to the atmosphere than we can remove) by soon after midcentury. We also need to achieve deep reductions in other greenhouse gas pollutants like methane. Continued delay will only deepen the challenge, and require us to reduce our emissions even more rapidly.

We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change in communities across the country from record flooding, devastating wildfires, scorching heat waves, and bigger and more damaging storms. Although the impacts are local, climate change is a global problem – which is why the IPCC outlined a global goal. But there are several reasons why the U.S. should strive for achieving a 100% clean economy as soon as possible.

First, the U.S. is the second largest emitter in the world, behind only China. Reaching net-zero emissions globally will only be possible with U.S. leadership. Second, over our history, the U.S. is responsible for by far the most emissions of any other country, more than 85% above China, the second biggest emitter. (Check out this Carbon Brief animation to see the relative emissions contributions of top emitting countries since 1750.) The U.S. has played a major role in creating this problem – we must also play a major role in the solution.

Furthermore, tackling the climate challenge is also just good business. By transitioning as rapidly as we can to 100% clean energy across our economy – including the power sector as well as transportation and industry – we will unleash the power of American innovation to develop cheaper, more efficient clean energy technologies. As global momentum on climate action continues to build, clean energy manufacturing will be an increasingly important industry. Innovative solutions developed by American entrepreneurs can be deployed around the world, helping lower the costs of global emissions reductions while strengthening American industries.

What Exactly Does 100% Clean Mean?

As we substitute zero carbon energy sources like wind and solar for fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, we reduce emissions. We’ve made a lot of progress on this front: according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, from 2007-2017, renewable electricity generation more than doubled, and wind and solar generation went from less than 1% of our electricity mix to more than 8%. But we can – and must – do a lot more.

Other sectors of the economy, however, such as air travel, or steel, cement and chemicals manufacturing, are very likely to be difficult and expensive to decarbonize with the technologies we have available or are developing today.

That’s where carbon dioxide removal technologies (CDRs) can play an important role. In comparison to technologies like solar or wind, which generate carbon-free energy, CDRs actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As long as we remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as we put into it, we’ll have achieved net-zero emissions – or a 100% clean energy economy.

There are many different types of CDRs, from natural approaches like increasing the amount of forest land and adopting sustainable farming practices, to technologies like direct air capture (DAC) that can suck pollution directly out of the air and store it underground or reuse it in products like fuel, fertilizer, or concrete.

How Do We Do It?

That’s a good question. We know that we are going to need to rapidly shift to cleaner sources of generation in the electricity sector, expand the use of clean electricity in sectors across the economy, advance energy efficiency – and also remove carbon from the atmosphere. The strategies we’ll need to pursue will vary by sector, and given the rapid pace of technology development over the last several years, it’s hard to know which zero-carbon technologies will end up being the most cost-competitive and easy to scale by 2050.

That’s why it’s important that the 100% clean economy goal is focused squarely on environmental results – cutting the pollution that causes climate change without specifying specific technology solutions. This allows for maximum opportunities to deploy a portfolio of technologies and approaches while providing incentives to innovators to find new effective and efficient low-, no-, and negative-emission technologies.

We can achieve this goal, but it will require policies that set declining limits on greenhouse gas emissions; account for the real cost of that pollution; stimulate the research, development and deployment of innovative technologies; and incentivize rapid action, especially in the sectors of the economy that look most challenging to decarbonize.

Climate change is an urgent problem that demands an urgent solution. The time is now to commit to a 100% clean economy that will be cleaner, safer, and more prosperous for all Americans.

Also posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Jobs, News, Policy, Science / Comments are closed

Clean Energy Innovation: An Important Piece of the Climate Puzzle

Bipartisanship and congressional action aren’t words associated with climate change in recent years. But we may be taking steps away from that stalemate. There is growing momentum in Congress to support innovation in clean energy – which can play an important role in reducing climate pollution.

Members from both parties recognize that investing in innovation can accelerate the development of high-impact breakthrough clean energy technologies. That includes “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) that remove carbon from the air and that scientists say will be needed to meet climate goals. Innovation programs can also help drive down the costs of existing essential options like solar, wind, and electric vehicles.

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy recently held a hearing to discuss two proposals that would direct the Department of Energy to develop and improve technologies that would reduce emissions from using fossil fuels. For example, DOE would be authorized to spend significant funding on technologies that capture carbon from power generation and industrial facilities as well as those that can cut emissions from difficult to decarbonize parts of the economy, like aviation, shipping, and cement, iron and steel production. Meanwhile, the House version of the Fiscal Year 2020 Energy and Water appropriations bill reflects the growing bipartisan support for innovation. It is a clear rejection of President Trump’s recommendations to cut or eliminate funding for renewable energy development, building and industrial energy efficiency programs, sustainable transportation technologies, and the popular and successful ARPA-E program that invests in high risk, high reward technologies.

These investments in innovation are an important step forward, but they are also not sufficient on their own to solve climate change – we must also act swiftly to put in place policies that set declining limits on greenhouse gas emissions and account for the real costs of that pollution. Together, these policies will lead to deeper pollution reductions, accomplished more quickly and affordably. That’s because a limit and a price on emissions will accelerate demand for clean energy, creating powerful economic incentives to adopt new technologies and providing a market for innovators who develop better ways to cut carbon. Investment in innovation can help make new technology options available, but we also need policies that create a level playing field such that clean technologies can thrive on the timeline and at the scale consistent with meeting our ambitious climate goals.

When it comes to innovation policies specifically, details matter, which is why we are outlining a set of key principles that together can form the foundation for well-designed innovation policy. Of course, not every individual bill can be expected to meet all of these principles, but a comprehensive national innovation strategy should strive to achieve them collectively.

  • Performance-based. The most promising technologies should receive the most funding – our focus should be on potential tons of pollution reduced per dollar invested.
  • Diversified. Investments should take a broad-based approach, encompassing a wide range of technologies that can reduce emissions in sectors throughout the economy – from NETS to emissions-reducing technologies like utility-scale energy storage to building and industrial efficiency to next-generation batteries, nuclear designs, electric vehicles, and grid equipment.
  • Risk tolerant. Government should not shy away from supporting riskier investments in potential breakthrough technologies given their possible impact on reducing pollution.
  • Ambitious. We need to stop adding climate pollution no later than 2050 – that is, producing no more than we can remove, or net-zero emissions. To dramatically transform our energy systems, we will need to at least double overall investments in innovation. That includes clean energy research and development – as well as programs focused on helping entrepreneurs and scientists bring technologies from the lab to the market.
  • Strategic. Policies should aim to leverage private capital as much as possible, and avoid duplicating or “crowding out” private investment.
  • Coordinated. Coordination across government agencies and programs, including within the Department of Energy, is critical to ensure investments are streamlined and their impacts maximized.
  • Adaptive. Programs should collect data to track performance in order to evaluate effectiveness per dollar and to improve with lessons learned over time.
  • Environmental integrity. Monitoring and tracking of emissions reductions is critical – including carbon that’s captured and stored underground or used in products or processes.  It’s also important to ensure full life-cycle accounting of emissions impacts – for example, taking into account land use changes as a result of biofuels production. And all policies should guard against negative environmental or health impacts and respect local and national environmental laws, like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

We must be at least as bold as the climate crisis is urgent. Support for innovation alone won’t do the job – but by pairing a robust innovation push with strong policy frameworks that limit overall greenhouse gases, we can cut pollution at the pace and scale that science demands. We should seek out and embrace every step forward while fighting for the comprehensive action needed to protect our economy, our health, and our children from the impacts of climate change.

Also posted in Policy / Comments are closed

Wheeler’s Clean Power Plan rollback misses a huge opportunity for cost-effective pollution reduction

Co-authored by Laura Supple and Rama Zakaria

The Trump administration is expected to soon finalize a rule that will throw out the Clean Power Plan – the first and only nation-wide limit on carbon pollution from existing power plants – and replace it with a “do-nothing” rule. Unlike the common-sense, market-based approach of the Clean Power Plan, the final rule is expected to mirror Wheeler’s proposed replacement–which contains no binding limits on carbon pollution, leaving it to the states to establish standards based on only a narrow and ineffective menu of operational efficiency tweaks for coal-fired power plants.

EPA’s own analysis has shown that this proposed replacement would increase climate pollution and dangerous soot and smog pollution, causing thousands of additional deaths and childhood asthma attacks every year compared to the Clean Power Plan, and may even increase pollution in several states compared to having no policy at all. In addition to disregarding the health and wellbeing of Americans, the proposed rule represents a tragic lost opportunity to achieve the deep, cost-effective reductions in pollution that are needed to address the urgent threat of climate change – and move the U.S. forward into a clean energy economy.

Here are four reasons why:

Power companies are making bold commitments to cut pollution, investing in cleaner technologies that deliver high-quality power at low cost to consumers

Power companies are setting ambitious goals to reduce pollution and increase the share of renewable technologies in their energy mix. Some of the largest power providers in the country have recognized the long-term economic value of renewable power and cleaner energy, setting their own targets to reduce pollution well below what the Clean Power Plan requires.

Xcel Energy, a utility serving 3.6 million customers across 8 Midwestern states, has already reduced carbon pollution by about 38% below 2005 levels while keeping costs low for its consumers. According to Xcel, its residential customer electric bill has decreased 3% in the past five years and is on average $28 lower per month than the national average. Xcel also recently ramped up its own ambitions, committing to cut carbon pollution 80% below 2005 levels by 2030, and achieve 100% clean power by 2050.

Other companies are also joining the trend towards decarbonizing their electricity mix, including Idaho Power, which has committed to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, and Platte River Power Authority, which aims to provide 100% renewable energy by 2030.

States and cities across the country are also setting bold targets to reduce pollution and expand the use of renewable energy. Seven states, 11 counties, and 125 U.S. cities have committed to 100% renewable energy, and at least 27 states have long-term policies establishing quantitative energy savings targets. These initiatives are making energy supplies more robust, reliable, and affordable, demonstrating that ambitious pollution reduction strategies can be good for the environment, good for business, and good for consumers.

Power sector trends have made deeper reductions achievable and cost-effective

Thanks in part to the ongoing market shift towards a cleaner electricity resource mix, the power sector is decarbonizing faster than was predicted just a few years ago.

In 2015, when the Clean Power Plan was finalized, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected baseline power sector carbon dioxide pollution would drop 10% from 2005 levels by 2030. Based on recent trends and technological developments, however, EIA’s most recent projections estimate that power sector carbon pollution would be at 34% below 2005 levels by 2030 – surpassing Clean Power Plan targets – even without federal climate regulation.

To be clear, we need the long-term regulatory signal established by meaningful federal regulation to ensure these trends continue and secure pollution reductions. Now more than ever, it is imperative that EPA use this momentum to set even greater climate protection targets in order to achieve the rapid reductions in carbon pollution that scientists say are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Plummeting costs of clean energy technologies are making pollution reduction more affordable and economical than ever

Targets for the Clean Power Plan relied on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) 2015 Annual Technology Baseline projections of renewable energy costs. In its latest 2018 report, NREL predicted that the costs of onshore wind in 2030 would be 28% lower than 2015 projections, and utility-scale solar PV costs could be up to 68% lower.

These projections match trends we see on the ground. Recent filings from Xcel Energy to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission include proposals for wind power between $11 to $18/MWh – cheaper than the operating cost of all existing coal plants in Colorado – and solar-plus-storage bids not much higher than standalone solar. Last year, NV Energy reported even lower bids, setting record-low prices in its solar and solar-plus-storage request for proposals.

Overall, electricity from renewables is already cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels in many parts of the country. PacifiCorp, a majority-coal power provider, recently found it could save money by retiring 60% of its coal fleet by 2022 and replacing those units with renewables. In a 2019 analysis, Energy Innovation reported that the U.S. has officially entered the “coal cost crossover,” finding that local (within 35 miles) wind and solar generation could replace 74% of U.S. coal plants at an immediate cost savings to customers. By 2025, 86% of coal power plants could be replaced with local renewable generation.

Recent modeling shows far more ambitious and cost-effective pollution reductions can be achieved

Several studies demonstrate just how ambitious climate targets could be – with the right set of regulatory and market-based strategies. A range of analyses show that far greater reductions in carbon pollution can be achieved at low cost.

In 2015, EPA estimated the cost of achieving the Clean Power Plan targets to be in the range of $24 to $37 per ton of carbon over the 2022 to 2030 compliance period. Recent updated analysis using the same power sector model, however, found that much more ambitious carbon pollution reductions of more than 50% below 2005 levels are possible at similar costs to the Clean Power Plan.

EIA also found that even greater reductions of 68% below 2005 levels could be achieved by 2030 at modest cost. A 2016 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that in a “Mid-Cost Case”, power sector carbon pollution limits of 76% below 2005 levels by 2030 could be cost-effectively achieved. Modeling by Columbia University Center and Rhodium Group also suggest that similar strategies could cut power sector carbon pollution by 72 to 76% below 2005 levels by 2030.

At a time when the threats of climate change have never been more apparent, EPA must move forward on climate action with emission reduction targets that surpass the ambition of the Clean Power Plan and protect human health and the environment from dangerous pollution. Instead, Wheeler’s proposed replacement misses a tremendous opportunity to secure deep reductions in carbon pollution and propel the U.S. into a clean energy future.

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, Economics, Health, News / Comments are closed

Pennsylvania has cost-effective opportunities to reduce carbon pollution – new report

Six states could see significant opportunity and low costs if they put in place protections against carbon pollution from the electricity sector, according to a new report.

The report, by Resources for the Future, looked at Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan.

It found that taking two steps – setting a binding, declining limit on power sector carbon pollution, and creating a flexible, market-based mechanism to achieve that limit – could reduce cumulative carbon pollution by 25 percent in the next decade at low cost. The findings also suggest that even greater ambition is feasible for the six states.

Thirteen states not covered by the report already have – or are about to have – regulations that limit carbon pollution from their electricity sector. Other states, including Pennsylvania, are actively seeking opportunities to reduce emissions and deploy clean energy.

The new report has three key takeaways for Pennsylvania:

Read More »

Also posted in Carbon Markets, Cities and states, Economics, Policy / Comments are closed

Latest EPA climate pollution data shows disturbing lack of progress

Greenhouse gas emission trends since 1990. Click to expand

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday reported that that the US made essentially no progress on climate pollution — an insignificant drop of 0.5% — even as scientists warn that without major reductions in emissions, global temperatures are on a dangerous track to increase well above 2 degrees Celsius.

Other data indicates that since 2017, the last year covered by this report, emissions have actually begun to rise. The Energy Information Agency and Rhodium Group estimate that in 2018 climate pollution from energy combustion rose 2.8 and 3.4%, respectively.

As climate pollution remains stubbornly high, the Trump administration has worked to undermine limits on carbon pollution, roll back rules on highly potent methane emissions and ducked international obligations to deal with climate change. This new report is another sign that without bold action, climate pollution will cause worsening impacts on our economy, health and future.

The dismal national climate pollution numbers contrast with pollution reductions underway in many states that have put in place aggressive policies to limit emissions and move towards clean energy even while the federal government sits on the sidelines. Read More »

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy, Science / Comments are closed

Andrew Wheeler takes the helm at EPA. What’s next for crucial safeguards?

Just last week, the Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler as EPA administrator. His installation signals a broader pivot point in defending EPA safeguards.

Over the last two years, the Trump administration’s efforts to categorically suspend crucial safeguards without public notice or comment failed across the board.

Looking ahead, Wheeler has almost two years to build on his troubling record by finalizing numerous deeply harmful major rollbacks. These rollbacks, if successful, risk thousands of premature deaths, hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks, and billions of tons of additional climate-destabilizing pollution.

We need to be making more, faster progress towards a clean energy and transportation future – not tearing down the safeguards we have in place.

Here’s a look at where we stand on three major issues — the opportunities we could seize, as well as the challenges ahead.  Read More »

Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Cities and states, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Economics, EPA litgation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Jobs, News, Policy / Read 2 Responses