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A net-zero strategy for Biden to lead the US on climate action

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When the United States officially rejoined the Paris Agreement, eyes turned from the climate commitments abandoned by President Trump to the commitments President Biden will make under the new U.S. Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). 

The NDC announcement, which outlines emissions reduction targets and policies to achieve them, is expected during an April 22 climate summit, but will it put us on a net-zero path to lead international action toward a safe climate future? 

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy would create an economic boom and U.S. recovery out of the COVID-19 downturn: Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 could increase GDP $1 trillion and create 5.5. million new job-years by 2050. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says global warming must be limited to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. Without heavy reliance on atmospheric carbon dioxide removal technology, which is not yet commercially available, or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, the target requires global emissions reductions of 47 to 58 percent in 2030 and 93 to 95 percent in 2050 relative to 2010 levels. This means the NDC commitment must cut carbon dioxide emissions at least 50 percent by 2030 and achieve net-zero before 2050 to meet the goal.

Halving U.S. emissions within 10 years has significant tailwinds behind it. Clean energy costs have fallen dramatically, making this transition possible. Since 2009, solar photovoltaic costs have dropped 90 percent, wind turbine costs 71 percent and LED light bulbs 80 percent; battery costs have fallen 80 percent since 2013. Because these technologies keep getting cheaper over time, deep decarbonization becomes more affordable for the U.S. and spurs job creation from building new clean infrastructure.

But this transition will not happen on its own. Only smart policies implemented now can achieve the decarbonization pace required for a safe climate future. Fortunately, decades of experience in climate and energy policy have shown which policies can deliver the emissions reductions to put the U.S. on a net-zero path. 

Modeling using the U.S. Energy Policy Simulator, an open-source tool developed by my firm Energy Innovation, identifies necessary economy-wide policies to achieve the IPCC’s recommended reductions. Our recommended policy pathway cuts total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 48 percent in 2030 and 95 percent in 2050 relative to 2010 levels, achieving net-zero carbon emissions in 2045. While many policies are needed to hit net-zero carbon emissions, a small handful can achieve most required reductions.

A clean electricity standard requiring 80 percent clean electricity in 2030 and 100 percent in 2035 is the linchpin of economy-wide decarbonization because it unlocks zero-emission electrification of vehicles, buildings and industry. Three separate and detailed grid modeling studies released in 2020 by the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University and Vibrant Clean Energy found that transitioning away from coal and gas would not increase electricity costs or compromise reliability. Coal is often the market’s most expensive power source and recent analysis found three-quarters of the existing U.S. coal-fired fleet was more expensive to operate than replacing plants with new local wind and solar. 

Replacing industrial fossil fuel use for heat, which contributes about 13 percent of U.S. GHG emissions, with alternatives such as electricity and green hydrogen is another important part of the net-zero policy package. Fuel switching could be achieved through policies including air pollution or equipment standards, carbon pricing on industrial fuels or industrial carbon caps. 

Zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) standards, which require all new cars, trucks and buses to produce zero emission by 2035 (cars and buses) or 2045 (trucks), can accelerate net-zero progress because transportation is the largest U.S. emissions source. These policies, put forward by the Energy Policy Simulator, eliminate car emissions by 2050 and cut truck emissions by nearly two-thirds. This ZEV standard could strengthen existing U.S. tailpipe standards to reach zero carbon emissions per mile in 2035, effectively requiring all new passenger car sales be ZEV by 2035. The U.S. could also separately institute a sales standard requiring a minimum share of ZEVs vehicles sold each year that steadily ramps up to 100 percent by 2035. 

We can’t overlook our homes and offices on the way to net-zero. Electrifying all existing and new buildings is the only way to eliminate direct building emissions, which make up about 14 percent of U.S. GHG emissions. Most of the building stock that will exist in 2050 is already built, which means reaching net-zero requires replacing existing fossil fuel-powered space heating, water heating and cooking equipment with electric alternatives. Considering appliances can last up to 20 years, all new equipment sales must be electric by 2030 to ensure an all-electric building stock by 2050.

The federal government could use existing regulatory authority to limit pollutant emissions from new equipment while setting efficiency standards that drive new equipment sales, and could start this process by developing its own model “green” building code for states and cities to adopt. A model code could require new buildings to be electric, as governments like California and the European Union have already done. 

But without eliminating coal emissions by 2030, putting the U.S. on a pathway limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is impossible. Our modeling assumes a combination of policies including federal emissions regulation, carbon price, and state utility regulatory reform will retire the coal fleet by 2030. Federal policy must also include a thoughtful transition for the coal-dependent workers and communities that provides good local jobs, decent health care, environmental remediation, tax incentives for building new clean energy resources near retired plants and assures earned pensions.  

A net-zero policy pathway would make the U.S. a global leader, creating millions of new jobs and trillions in economic benefits along the way. We face a critical juncture for our future — with less than a decade to prevent dangerous climate change, now is the time to act. 

Biden can choose to be a global climate leader, committing to a strong NDC, in line with international efforts limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Doing so would not only strengthen our economy, but it could spur greater ambition by other nations and cement his legacy as the president who led us all to a safe climate future. 

Robbie Orvis is the Director of Energy Policy Design at nonpartisan think tank Energy Innovation. He has worked with Congressional offices and federal policymakers on policy modeling, most notably the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. He has been published by Axios, Forbes. and Utility Dive. Connect with him on Twitter at @robbieorvis.

Tags Biden climate policy carbon emissions climate action Climate change Donald Trump Environment Joe Biden net-zero carbon net-zero emissions Paris Agreement Climate Accords

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