Can America go carbon neutral by 2050?

Biden’s win could have profound effect on shape and vigour of battle against climate change

2020 coronavirus-fuelled shutdowns saw greenhouse gas emissions in the US fall 10 per cent. Photograph: Getty Images

2020 coronavirus-fuelled shutdowns saw greenhouse gas emissions in the US fall 10 per cent. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Last year’s coronavirus-fuelled shutdowns saw greenhouse gas emissions in the US, the world’s second largest carbon emitter, fall 10 per cent – the most since the Second World War to levels not seen since 1990. Transportation fell off a cliff, with demand for jet fuel plummeting 68 per cent and petrol by two-fifths.

The decline, combined with president Joe Biden’s recommitment to the Paris Climate Accord, have created a renewed groundswell of positivity that the country can reach another of Biden’s climate goals: net zero carbon emissions in the United States by 2050.

Now, researchers at Princeton University have set out to show us how. Their detailed, state-by-state study released in December and titled Net Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts, is in its own words “the first to quantify and map with this degree of specificity.”

It finds that decarbonising the American economy within the coming 30 years to be achievable via any of five proposed technological pathways but which demand the kind of change to economic activity that’s without precedent. The report suggests route systems that range from an all-out renewable system to high electrification to high biomass use, to part-renewable – see study below.

“We find that each net-zero pathway results in a net increase in energy-sector employment and delivers significant reductions in air pollution, leading to public health benefits that begin immediately in the first decade of the transition,” the report finds. All suggested approaches, however, involve completely ending coal as an energy source by 2030.

The energy sector is in the midst of great uncertainty with business moguls investing billions of dollars in the enduring appeal of natural gas

“In all of our scenarios, we have pretty impressive rates of building various technologies: solar, adoption of electric vehicles, the expansion of nuclear power. All of these are without historical precedent in terms of the rate at which we need to build them,” says Eric Larson, lead author of the report and a senior research engineer at Princeton University’s Andlinger Centre for Energy and the Environment.

With America responsible for 16 per cent of global carbon emissions, Biden’s presidential win in particular could have a profound effect on the shape and vigour of the battle against climate change over the coming decades.

But the broader challenge is enormous. For example, there’s nothing readily available to replace cement for construction or aeroplane fuel on a commercial scale.

The energy sector is in the midst of great uncertainty with business moguls investing billions of dollars in the enduring appeal of natural gas - seen as a bridging fuel source until renewables can get to utility level. On the global scale, almost $2 trillion is set to be invested in fossil fuel developments over the next decade by state-owned organisations alone. Then there’s the politics.

Around 43 per cent of Americans believe climate change doesn’t exist or is caused by natural events in the earth’s environment. In states such as Texas, itself the world’s nineth largest economy by GDP and the site of a number of catastrophic natural disasters in recent years, lawmakers have stalled a series of proposed bills to study the local impacts of climate change.

Among study provisions is that by 2030, the US would need to see 30 million electric cars on the road. Photograph: Robert Knopes/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Among study provisions is that by 2030, the US would need to see 30 million electric cars on the road. Photograph: Robert Knopes/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Blue hydrogen, derived from natural gas, is far cheaper than its green equivalent (hydrogen fuel from renewable sources) and is set to remain so for years to come.

“If you saw what Biden said, they want to get to [A]net-zero electricity sector by 2035. That’s great,” says David Rabley, managing director of Accenture Strategy, which consults with, among others, petroleum energy companies.

“Now, the challenge is going to be electricity; while it’s increasing as a share of energy consumption from around 20 per cent today to somewhere between 40 to 50 per cent by around 2050, it’s not the only sector. And it’s not going to be the only source of energy consumption. And so, you know, the simple answer is (that) the electricity sector alone is never going to be sufficient to help to get to net zero.”

But can it be done? A host of former Soviet satellite states have shown that, over the past thirty years reducing carbon emissions are eminently achievable. Lithuania and Romania, for example, have both reduced their emissions by almost 56 per cent since 1990; Ukraine’s has fallen by three-quarters. California, by itself the world’s fifth largest economy, has committed to net zero by 2050 and is already making serious inroads in that department. The pandemic-fuelled fall in fossil fuel usage in America last year saw emissions from coal drop 20 per cent from 2019.

Japan holds similar goals as the US, while China, the world’s biggest emitter of toxic gases at around twice the American rate, has vowed to reach the same landmark by 2060.

What’s more, Big Tech has positioned itself at the cutting edge and is driving the advancements needed to reach the goal. Google has pledged to get to net zero by 2030 while Amazon, which operates an ever-growing fleet of trucks across the US, has vowed to do similarly a decade later.

All the while, hydrocarbon producers are struggling. Halliburton lost $3 billion last year, with more than 100 fossil fuel companies filing for bankruptcy in the US in 2020. Since 2015, that figure rises to around 500 across North America.

Signs suggest those with their fingers on the levers of oil and gas production may be sincere about an evolution away from carbon-based fuels.

“From the conversations we have, these companies are extraordinarily serious, they recognise that this increasingly makes good business sense,” says David Rabley, “but also good environmental sense, and you’re starting to see investors in these companies really collocating.”

If there’s a single key that opens the door to net zero by 2050, Eric Larson suggests it might be social licence. “As a society we need to want to do this, and that would unlock lots of opportunities,” he says. “Society as a whole will need to have a discussion whether these pathways are what they want to do or not.”

In January, the US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry made the obvious but often overlooked point that whether governments choose to invest in clean energy or not, the warming climate is already costing economies tens of billions of dollars every year now, due to the increasing frequency of damaging storms and wildfires (since 2015, an unprecedented $10 billion or more disaster events have become standard in America every year).

“We can pursue the first decade pretty confidently that we’re going to be on a pathway to net zero. Beyond 2030, things start to diverge in our scenarios,” Larson adds. “One of the recommendations that we have is that in the 2020s we need to create the options that give us the biggest range of choices going forward.”

Study

A study released in December by Princeton University researchers – ‘Net Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts’ – lays out, over 345 pages, how reaching net zero within the coming 30 years can be achieved through one of five technological pathways.

Among its provisions is that by 2030, the US would need to see 30 million electric cars on the road (currently about 1.4 million) supported by three million public charging ports, grow wind and solar capacity by four times, and reduce non-CO2 gasses by a minimum of ten per cent.

Around $2.5 trillion (€2.06 trillion) in additional investments needs to be spent in the coming decade on top of $9.4 trillion (€7.75 trillion) already expected to be outlaid, which would add between 500,000 and one million jobs while preventing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths – and saving further billions of dollars in healthcare and other costs.