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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As 2020 approaches, the climate action spotlight is on forests

Amazon Canopy. Warwick Lister-Kaye / istockphoto.com.

With 2020 fast approaching, countries, companies, and other stakeholders are taking stock of their climate commitments. As they consider ways to meet and enhance climate goals, interest in net zero emissions commitments and carbon removal technologies has grown. But what these discussions reveal is that forests are crucial. Capable of significantly reducing net emissions at a low marginal cost, and in the short-term, forests are an important piece of the climate change mitigation puzzle.

This year, tropical forests have dominated the spotlight. The forest fires raging throughout Brazil, Bolivia, and Indonesia are part of a disturbing trend: despite commitments from governments and companies, deforestation is still on the rise globally. Key forest ecosystems such as the Amazon continue to face the pressures of crop expansion for agricultural production, illegal extractive activities like timber harvesting and mining, relaxed legal enforcement and weakened environmental policies.

As deforestation persists, the planet’s capacity to absorb carbon pollution diminishes and more carbon is being released; tree cover loss in tropical forests accounts for about 16 to 33 percent of global emissions. We should be alarmed. But we should also be hopeful. Here are a few reasons why:

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Posted in California, Carbon Markets, Forest protection, International, Paris Agreement, REDD+, United Nations / Comments are closed

How Brazil can develop its rural economy, increase agricultural production and protect forests

Day one panel “How should the rural economy be in the future?” featuring, from left, Carlos Nobre (IEA-USP), André Guimarães (IPAM), Regina Sambuichi (Ipea), and Juliano Assunção (PUC-RIO). Photo by IPC-IG on Flickr .

The recent fires in the Amazon rainforest have raised the question: is it possible to have a new model of development in the region that reconciles forest protection with economic growth?

The pressing threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation along with a growing global demand for agricultural commodities, pose major challenges and opportunities for rural economies.

A group of Brazilian and international scientists, economists, and government officials joined private sector, civil society and multilateral organization representatives in Brasília to discuss how these challenges could be turned into economic and environmental opportunities for the Brazilian rural sector.

The two day workshop, “Business Opportunities for a Sustainable Rural Economy: The Contribution from Forests and Agriculture,” examined different facets of Brazil’s potential in a low-carbon rural economy. Organized by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in partnership with the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) of the Brazilian Ministry of Economy, and the United Nations Development Program – International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG), participants concluded that Brazil has an unparalleled comparative advantage to foster a buoyant sustainable rural economy that couples economic and agricultural development with environmental protection.

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Posted in Agriculture, Brazil, Carbon Markets, Forest protection / Read 1 Response

Striking for the climate and defending our future

(This post was written by Christina Fullmer. It first appeared on Defend Our Future
Over the course of my professional career, I have observed several protest events. The Global Climate Strike on September 20th marked my first experience as an active, marching, sign-holding protest participant. When I confessed this to one of my colleagues in the NYC office, she rightly asked the question: What took you so long? Good question. Let’s just say that it was an amazing way to cap my fourth week of employment with EDF!The day before the Climate Strike, I had a brief meet and greet with EDF President Fred Krupp in the New York office. His message to me was a distillation of everything I had absorbed during my first few weeks, namely, that what we do is “in service to changing the world.” These words resonated with me as I joined tens of thousands of environmental allies marching toward Foley Square and onward to Battery Park. Bearing witness to the anger, the fear, and the hope expressed by those marching alongside me was stirring. Knowing that EDF works tirelessly to address urgent environmental issues, and that I am now a part of these efforts, is affirming.

Protesting in unity with the world’s youth as they lead the climate crusade for environmental justice, policies that protect our planet, and effective leadership was an honor and was the least that I could do. I can’t wait for the next one!

Posted in Partners for Change / Read 1 Response

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

Three opportunities for the UN’s aviation agency to deliver climate action

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

As International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) 40th General Assembly kicks off this week in Montreal, aviation faces an existential challenge: the need to zero out its climate impact. Greta Thunberg, whose refusal to fly symbolizes the question every child of her generation will face, leads a climate strike on this Friday, that will march right to ICAO’s gates. Will their demands move the delegates representing 193 countries meeting inside?

Here are three opportunities the Assembly can take to back up their climate commitments with real action.

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