Climate 411

100% Clean: How Do We Actually Get There?

For the U.S. to do its part to help avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must achieve a 100% clean economy by 2050 at the latest – removing at least as much climate pollution from the atmosphere as we put into it each year. (Read this for more on what we mean by “100% clean” or why this should be the goal.)  But what does a 100% clean economy actually look like and how do we get there?

Several studies have examined how the U.S. can cut emissions 80% from 2005 levels by 2050, such as the Obama Administration’s Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization. More recently, Evolved Energy’s 350 ppm Pathways for the United States became the first major report to identify pathways for the U.S. to achieve even deeper reductions: net-zero carbon dioxide (CO­2) emissions by 2050.

A 100% clean economy by 2050 is ambitious but necessary. To achieve it, we’ll need policies that drive down  climate pollution and substantial acceleration of clean energy innovation. Deep decarbonization studies suggest that with comprehensive climate policy and technology progress as a foundation, a 100% clean economy will most likely rely on:

  • Rapidly transitioning to a clean electricity system. We already have a good idea of how to clean up the electricity sector. Several zero-carbon sources (wind, solar, hydro, nuclear) have been widely deployed and are already among the most cost-effective options for new generation. As a result, the electricity sector is likely to transition quicker and more cost effectively than any other part of the economy.
  • Electrifying as much as possible. Electrifying major sectors like transportation and buildings cuts fossil fuel use and reduces emissions even with today’s electricity mix. It will lead to even greater reductions as electricity gets cleaner.
  • Deploying low carbon fuels where electrification isn’t practical. Cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, including hydrogen, synthetic gas, and biofuels can fill in where electrification is tricky, such as for high temperature heat needed for manufacturing processes and in aviation.
  • Advancing energy efficiency. Energy efficiency lowers the amount of energy required—and therefore the emissions produced. Today, there are cost-effective energy efficiency opportunities in every sector of the economy, from vehicles to appliances to industrial equipment. As technology improves, even more opportunities to save energy while saving money will become available.
  • Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Protecting and increasing natural carbon “sinks” like forests or by deploying technologies that suck CO2 directly out of the air can help lower concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, helping us reach 100% clean as quickly as possible. Also, because it will be very challenging to completely eliminate emissions from all parts of the economy, especially industry and transportation, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) can help ensure we’re taking as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we’re putting into it. There is disagreement over how big the potential carbon sink is from natural sources (the Evolved study, for instance, assumes the potential for natural CDR is large relative to other estimates). To the extent less natural CDR is available, we will need more technological CDR or more carbon mitigation.
  • Reducing non-CO2 CO2 is the dominant climate pollutant responsible for climate change, but there are other major greenhouse gases that trap more heat on a per ton basis, such as methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These gases are emitted not only through energy consumption but as byproducts of a wide variety of activities such as agriculture, oil and gas industries, landfills, and refrigeration and air conditioning. There are various strategies available to reduce these greenhouse gas emissions, but some sources are easier to reduce than others. For example, cutting edge techniques to limit methane emissions from livestock can only reduce emissions by 30%, even as livestock-related emissions are likely to grow as the population grows. More RD&D, incentives, regulations and technical assistance across the economy will be needed to reduce these emissions and deploy available technologies.

This suite of strategies, some of which are already cost-competitive with more polluting alternatives, could take off with a pollution limit in place. The chart below, based on Evolved Energy’s data, shows how these strategies might intersect to help the U.S. reach a 100% clean economy (although it’s important to note that the Evolved analysis only considered energy-related CO­2 emissions).

(Click to Enlarge) *With electrification, there will be less direct use of fossil fuel, but the fuels that remain will tend to be more energy and carbon intensive **Includes negative emissions from biomass, increased sequestration in natural sinks, and negative emissions technologies +Some of the savings attributed to EE could also be attributed to electrification, as many electric technologies use less energy to provide the same service compared to fossil fuel burning alternatives

The contributions of each of the strategies in the figure should be considered rough orders of magnitude rather than precise estimates. There are many different ways to project the potential emissions reductions from each strategy, and each strategy also interacts and influences the others. For example, the extent to which expanded electrification leads to emissions reductions depends heavily on how clean the electricity sector becomes. The important thing to note is that we will have to make dramatic progress in each of these areas in order to achieve a 100% clean economy.

We can also see that even as overall emissions decline, there are forces pushing some sources of emissions up: Historically, as economic growth increased, so did energy consumption and emissions. While there’s recent evidence this relationship may be growing weaker, in general, higher GDP is associated with more energy demand. And while we expect to electrify a lot of the economy, not all equipment can be easily electrified, especially those that require the most energy, like airplanes and some industrial processes that require extremely high temperatures. As a result, the remaining fuels that are not replaced with electricity are more carbon intensive than the average of all of the fuels used today. So while there’s less direct use of fossil fuels, what’s left may be more carbon intensive.

At the big picture level, a 100% clean economy will be vastly more efficient, more reliant on clean electricity, and will deploy technologies and practices that capture and store at least as many emissions as we produce. Let’s go deeper and explore how a 100% clean economy might transform specific sectors:

  • In commercial and residential buildings, much of the energy needed for space and water heating and cooking will come from electricity. This will require next-generation appliance standards, more ambitious building codes, and incentives to adopt efficient electric technologies like electric heat pumps. Maximizing energy efficiency in new buildings will be essential: many of the buildings built today will still be standing in 2050.
  • Increased electrification will also be necessary in the industrial sector, although many industrial processes will be hard to electrify. Fuel switching to alternative low- or no-carbon sources like hydrogen or sustainable biofuels, as well as energy and material efficiency – making less resource-intensive products – can also significantly reduce industrial sector emissions. Finally, many industrial processes are good candidates for carbon capture and storage technologies that capture carbon emissions to be stored underground or put to productive use.
  • Electrification and efficiency will drive a lot of the transportation sector emission reductions. The Evolved analysis assumes that electric vehicles and other zero carbon alternatives like fuel cells make up nearly 100% of new vehicle sales by the end of the 2030s, up from only a few percent today. This will require expanded incentives for electric vehicles coupled with stronger climate pollution standards for cars and trucks (like the ones the Trump Administration is trying to roll back).

Deep decarbonization studies also often rely on biofuels as a large source of transportation emissions reductions, although measuring the full emissions footprint of biofuels is challenging and controversial.  What we do know is that, for applications such as jet fuel, electrification is unlikely, and therefore deployment of verifiably sustainable biofuels could play an important role in getting to 100% clean.

Taken together, transitioning to a 100% clean economy by midcentury will require an unprecedented transformation of our economy. Understanding the core elements of a 100% clean economy can help us design policies to accelerate the needed transition to a more efficient economy that relies more heavily on clean electricity and low carbon fuels, and which reduces as much climate pollution as it produces.

The good news is there are signs of progress. Several pieces of federal climate legislation have been introduced by members of both parties that would begin to put us on the right path. While a 100% clean economy ultimately requires that Congress enact legislation to drive down climate pollution, innovation is also an important piece of the climate puzzle, and it currently enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. And states across the country are already taking action.

100% clean is 100% achievable: now we need to build the political will to make it a reality.

 

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Four takeaways on climate change and sea level rise in the latest IPCC report

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published yet another alarming report about the dangers we face from the climate crisis.

The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate synthesizes the latest science on how the oceans and frozen parts of the world have changed, and will continue to change, because of global warming.

More than 100 scientists from 36 countries summarized findings from almost 7,000 peer reviewed research studies. The authors addressed over 30,000 comments from expert reviewers and governments in 80 countries.

A major focus of the report is sea level rise, a climate change impact that is especially serious to those who live in coastal regions – which is more than a quarter of the world’s population. Recent advances in science, such as higher quality data, improved physical understanding, and agreements across modeling studies have improved understanding of the threat of sea level rise.

Here are four of the report’s most important takeaways on sea level rise:

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Also posted in Arctic & Antarctic, Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Oceans, Policy, Science / Read 3 Responses

Trump’s ACE Rule May Especially Harm Vulnerable Communities

(This post was co-authored by EDF intern Laura Supple)

The Trump administration’s latest attack on clean air protections may cause the greatest harm to the most vulnerable communities – according to EPA’s own projections.

In June, the Trump administration repealed the Clean Power Plan – America’s first and only nationwide limit on carbon pollution from existing power plants – and replaced it with a pollution-enabling rule that, by EPA’s own numbers, would increase climate pollution in many states compared to no policy at all.

Experts have warned that under the Trump replacement, called the ACE rule, many parts of the country would also see increases in health-harming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides pollution that lead to soot and smog. While the Administration has tried to downplay the public health consequences of the new rule, EPA’s projections show that vulnerable communities around the nation will likely suffer the most from these dangerous pollution increases.

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Also posted in Cities and states, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Policy / Comments are closed

By the numbers: Colorado Zero Emission Vehicle Program will cut climate pollution and save Coloradans money

(This post was written by EDF  Attorney Laura Shields) 

The numbers are in for Colorado’s proposed Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program – it will cut climate pollution and save Coloradans millions of dollars.

This week, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is formally considering adoption of the ZEV program for model year 2023 through 2025 vehicles. (Colorado already adopted state Low Emission Vehicle standards last year).

What’s at stake for Coloradans?

This important clean air program means that, while no Coloradan has any obligation to buy or choose a zero-polluting vehicle, ALL Coloradans will have more models of zero-emitting vehicles to choose from if they want a cleaner car.

These clean vehicles will save Coloradans hard-earned money at the gas pump and will reduce dangerous climate pollution. They will also help reduce smog-forming pollution in all communities across Colorado, clean up Denver’s brown cloud, and lift the veil of haze pollution in our world-class national parks and wilderness areas.

In short, Colorado’s proposed ZEV program will mean healthier air, fuel cost savings, more vehicle choice and a safer climate for all Coloradans.

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Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Cities and states, Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Partners for Change, Policy / Read 2 Responses

Climate Changed: Millions of Americans Already Living Beyond Temperature Goal

(This post was co-authored by Nat Keohane and David Festa

Earth as seen from a NOAA weather satellite. Photo: NASA

The hotter future that climate pollution is creating has already arrived for 1 in 10 Americans. A new analysis from The Washington Post shows that 34 million Americans live in areas that have now seen average temperatures rise farther than the goal set by the Paris climate agreement — 2 degrees centigrade or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even as the Trump administration attempts to dismantle policies to reduce climate pollution, average temperatures have shot up in parts of North Dakota, Montana, Utah, in the Northeast and Southwest, and elsewhere. These increases – which are not summer spikes, but year-round averages – are part of the trend that is worsening wildfires, making more damaging storms, and creating serious problems for farmers.

The Post‘s Steven Mufson, Chris Mooney, Juliet Eilperin, and John Muyskens surveyed more than 100 years of weather data about the continental United States from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and other scientific sources. Their work provides a bold-face headline to the peer-reviewed science that shows the dangerous speed at which our world is warming. It comes on the heels of last week’s United Nations report on land use and climate change, which warned of increasing water scarcity and food shortages from continued warming.

If there is good news in these disturbing reports, it is that the tangible reality of climate change may be spurring action to reduce emissions and begin the long overdue process of building resilience. Despite the Trump administration’s surrender on the issue, many states are newly aggressive. New Jersey, one of the states that the Washington Post reports is getting hottest fastest, just enacted a series of climate pollution reduction policies. Minnesota, California, and Maine – all states with areas of 2-degree increase – have recently put in place ambitious climate action policies. Colorado, another state with hotspots, just enacted landmark legislation that sets some of the strongest targets in the country for reducing climate pollution.

We can’t solve the climate crisis without leadership from the federal government, but there are paths forward to a better outcome. Failing to act because we hear bad news will only make the problem tougher. If we can generate the political will, we can make our future dramatically safer by moving to a 100% clean economy.

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Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Cities and states, Extreme Weather, Policy, Science / Comments are closed

Getting 100% Clear on 100% Clean

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 Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Jobs, Policy, Science / Comments are closed