Report Maps Out Decarbonization Plan for U.S.

America’s fossil fuels addiction will be hard to kick, and it’s likely that the U.S. will still be plenty hooked in 2050, even with climate change being self evident nearly everywhere.

Breaking the addiction may be hard, but it’s not impossible according to an expansive new United Nations study published Thursday.

There’s no technological or economic barrier preventing the U.S. from almost completely eliminating fossil fuels and basically kicking it’s carbon habit by mid-century, according to the report issued by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.

Emissions from an oil refinery.
Credit: MikeMorris/Flickr

The U.S. is fully technologically able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and the report provides a roadmap to make that “80 by 50” goal a reality.

The report, which focuses only on the U.S., is part of a global effort to show how the world can cap its greenhouse gas emissions to prevent more than 2°C (3.6°F) of global warming above pre-industrial levels, and may provide the basis for negotiations at global climate talks in Paris in 2015, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said during a news conference.

“This is the first analysis of its kind to look at how the U.S. might meet such a deep greenhouse gas reduction goal all the way to 2050,” Margaret Torn, report co-author and senior scientist and co-head of the Climate and Carbon Sciences Program at Berkeley Lab, said. “Can we do it? The answer is yes.”

The roadmap shows that such drastic decarbonization may be possible if all political barriers are absent.

The U.S. can reach the “80 by 50” goal in many different ways, the net costs of which would be roughly 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product per year.

Whatever the cost, making it happen would change a lot of things about daily life in the U.S. Namely, it would probably put the oil and gas industry nearly out of business, as the U.S. would have to reduce the amount of petroleum it burns by up to 91 percent.

“One kind of asset that does need to be stranded is the fossil fuel assets themselves,” Sachs said. “There are more proved reserves of coal, oil and gas than there is space (in the atmosphere) for the CO2 they would emit.”

Making the U.S. nearly free of CO2 emissions over 35 years requires three major changes: a rapid rise in energy efficiency; electric power generation would have to become zero-carbon and people would have to completely stop using oil and natural gas for cooking, heating and other uses.

That means trading in gas stoves for electric ranges, and swapping SUVs for electric cars. Cars and trucks would have to use low-carbon fuel with gas mileage exceeding 100 mpg. That would require about 300 million of those vehicles to be built and sold over the next 35 years.

The entire U.S. energy system would also have to be completely transformed as fossil fuel-fired power plants are decommissioned, requiring wind and solar power generation to increase 30 times over today’s production levels.

If the U.S. were to eschew a high level of renewables development, it could achieve the same low-carbon goal by quadrupling nuclear power production or using carbon capture and storage technology to bury all the emissions from nearly all the coal and natural gas-fired power plants existing today.

If it seems impossible for any of that to happen over the next 35 years, the report’s authors say there’s still time.

All the power plants, cars and other energy-inefficient equipment will likely wear out and be replaced in that time, meaning there’s ample opportunity for old technology to replaced with with highly efficient technology by 2050. 

Wind power production may have to increase dramatically if the U.S. aims to reduce greenhouse gases 80 percent below 1990 levels.
Credit: John Weiss/flickr

“One of the useful things about this report is that it shows what we need to be doing in the near term,” Taryn Fransen, senior associate for climate policy at the World Resources Institute, said. “That closer time frame is what negotiations are focused on right now.” 

Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., and unaffiliated with the study, said the U.S. is positioned to be one of the best countries for such drastic changes to occur.

“Many strategies that look at deep decarbonization over the next half century or so make use of the fact that we have an already-existing fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said. “We can put a whole lot of intermittent renewables online and use our existing fossil fuel infrastructure as backup when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining.”

What may be technologically feasible isn’t necessarily politically feasible or even something the public will accept.

“You really have to do away with almost our entire fossil fuel-based power generation and the entire oil industry,” Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke University and former NASA researcher who is unaffiliated with the study, said.

Large energy companies spending billions of dollars on oil and gas projects today would not benefit from a decarbonized economy and are likely to make it politically challenging for decarbonization to occur in the next 35 years, he said.

The report shows clearly that technology is no barrier to removing greenhouse gases from the U.S. economy, which is useful to know when negotiating political and economic ways to make decarbonization happen, Shindell said.

“It’s useful for setting the stage, but it sets the stage for this much, much more difficult debate on how we can get such a thing done,” he said.