It’s time to break ground on our net-zero future
This time last year, President Biden was preparing to announce the United States’ new and ambitious commitment to cut emissions in half by the end of the decade, while welcoming new pledges from global partners at the White House’s Leaders Summit on Climate. Today, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases the mitigation component of its Sixth Assessment Report, the stakes are clearer than ever that the U.S. and other major emitters must deliver on their promises.
The latest findings from the IPCC paint a grim picture: Despite some signs of progress, the world’s chances of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is shrinking — and with it, our ability to prevent the most dangerous climate impacts. Rapid, multisectoral transformation, made possible by greatly accelerating investment, is critical to keep these goals within reach.
One thing is clear: To make the necessary transformations to keep global warming in check, we are going to need to build a lot of infrastructure — everything from high-voltage transmission lines to solar rooftops — and do it very quickly. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted last fall can energize this process, but more will be needed through a budget reconciliation package. Ramping up implementation this year is key to ensure that funding is spent smartly to deliver for the climate and all Americans.
To make this a reality, there are many things we need to do at once.
First, we must empower communities to engage in decision-making around clean energy infrastructure and access federal climate funding from the get-go. Although the IPCC report is clear that transitioning the global economy off fossil fuels can come with costs such as job loss in some communities, overall this transition will bring immense benefits for people, such as improving air quality in some of the country’s most polluted areas (which are disproportionately populated by people of color). However, increasing community engagement is key to ensure that we build the right things in the right places in a way that enhances equity rather than perpetuating historic patterns of injustice.
Second, we must build robust clean energy transmission and distribution systems that are as flexible as possible. To limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the IPCC report envisions 100 percent low-carbon global electricity generation by 2050, with grids that are led by renewable sources and integrate storage, along with sources of clean firm power (such as nuclear, natural gas with carbon capture and/or hydrogen turbines). In addition to being capable of transmitting rising amounts of renewable energy, these systems must be resilient to the increasingly extreme weather that climate change is bringing.
To supercharge this construction, the U.S. can start by capitalizing on existing and underutilized “rights of way” and underground high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines that are efficient, less of an eyesore than above-ground power lines, and more protected from wildfires, storms and other extreme weather that often cause outages.
Take for example an innovative transmission project proposing to bring Iowa’s abundant wind energy to Chicago via a reliable, underground HVDC transmission line built along existing railroad rights of way.
Third, we must expand access to electric vehicles (EVs) and charging infrastructure in conjunction with other clean transportation options, including safe routes for walking and biking.
The IPCC finds that if left unchecked, emissions from the transport sector could increase up to 50 percent by 2050; in the U.S., EVs are a key component of decarbonizing transportation. Adoption is dependent on making the vehicles more affordable and charging infrastructure easily available. Most early EV adopters can charge at home, but public charging is needed for road trips and for residents with limited charging access at home.
One study found that less than 10 percent of Americans in cities have easy access to public charging, with lower-income communities as well as Black and Hispanic/Latino communities having particularly limited access. To help improve accessibility, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is making an essential investment in public EV charging infrastructure along the interstate highway system and in underserved communities.
Fourth, we must make our buildings zero-carbon and climate-smart. From more efficient appliances to heat pumps, there are increasingly available and effective approaches to decarbonize buildings. Take schools, for example: They are important community centers, and the second-largest sector of public infrastructure spending. Schools can install solar panels and be made more energy-efficient, which will not only reduce emissions but can also save money for education. They can also integrate electric school buses to provide emergency power and green school yards, which can help manage climate impacts (like flooding and extreme heat) and make green spaces more accessible to the community.
And fifth, we must decarbonize industry through efficiency improvements, electrification, circular economy measures, and by developing other technologies such as green hydrogen. The IPCC report found that limiting rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius will also require removing carbon from the atmosphere. Investing in carbon removal in the U.S. can counter-balance emissions from hard-to-abate sectors, while helping address the country’s disproportionate contribution to historical emissions.
We need to build up our carbon dioxide capture, removal and sequestration capacity. Investing in the infrastructure of carbon removal can and should cover a range of projects, from implementing direct air carbon capture (DAC) hubs to forest management activities that increase the amount of carbon that forests can absorb and store. Natural carbon removal approaches are already used at scale, and should continue to be enhanced to help keep us on track. Nonetheless, it is very likely we will also need to deploy a suite of nascent technological carbon removal approaches, such as DAC, mineralization and ocean-based carbon removal.
As the president said in his State of the Union address last month, and in his recently released budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, it’s time to build a better America. But to make sure the country capitalizes on all that a clean energy, carbon-negative future offers, we have to start today.
Dan Lashof is the director of World Resources Institute, United States. Follow him on Twitter: @DLashof
Lori Bird is director of World Resources Institute’s U.S. Energy Program and Polsky chair for renewable energy.
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