What Is Needed to Meet US Climate Commitments
A very rapid transformation is needed by 2030: we have the technical ingredients in hand and the transition will bring broad benefits.
The United States has committed to reduce carbon pollution to at least 50-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 as part of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. This newly ambitious nationally determined contribution (NDC) recognizes the urgency for immediate action to reduce cumulative pollution and stabilize the climate. The NDC also follows four years of non-federal actors leading the way on climate action.
With a re-engaged federal government, the NDC is achievable with a whole-of-society approach. By working with businesses, local governments, universities, and others already committed to reducing carbon pollution, the United States can achieve and exceed the target with creative and ambitious action, investment, and collaboration.
While the task ahead is daunting, there is more good news. We have new, low-cost technologies that we can invest in today to quickly reduce pollution, consistent with the US commitment. Even better, deploying these technologies will add US jobs, lower energy bills, and bring significant health benefits.
The Most Important Year to Reduce Carbon Pollution Is This Year
In our new report, Scaling US Climate Ambitions to Meet the Science and Arithmetic of 1.5°C Warming, RMI shows a path with the speed necessary for the United States to play its part to limit climate change to 1.5°C. This translates to about 3°F of heating in the continental United States. Because carbon dioxide pollution remains in the atmosphere for many, many generations, stabilizing the climate requires that we limit cumulative carbon emissions on the way to bringing net carbon pollution to zero.
Therefore, we have a limited remaining “carbon budget.” If we exceed this budget, we either face the tremendous dangers of an unstable climate or task our children with removing the pollution that we created, at tremendous expense. Immediately replacing power plants, vehicles, heating systems, and other devices that burn fossil fuels has the largest impact. This is why the most important year to phase out fossil fuel infrastructure and invest in clean energy solutions is this year.
Many climate goals focus only on point-in-time targets, like net zero in 2050 or 50 percent reduction in 2030. Because cumulative emissions are what really matters, a single year target cannot on its own demonstrate alignment with climate targets: we must focus on total emissions over time and reduce emissions rapidly beginning today.
Cost-Effective Solutions Exist: Renewables, Electrification, and Efficiency
Thanks to decades of research, engineering, investment, and business model innovation, three key solutions can jumpstart pollution reductions and allow the United States to meet and exceed its recent commitment. As we describe in a companion policy brief, US Sector-Level Strategies and Targets to Limit Warming to 1.5°C, renewables, electrification, and efficiency are cost-effective and ready to scale nationwide.
Today, wind and solar are poised to transform how the United States generates electricity, allowing us to stop depending on polluting coal and gas plants. Solar power is already the cheapest form of electricity in history. Wind is also cheaper than coal or gas in much of the United States—with vast, extremely low-cost resources in the Midwest and West—and its cost continues to fall. Offshore wind projects are now being built along the East Coast from Virginia to Maine.
Meanwhile, battery technology makes it possible to economically store electricity generated by intermittent renewables so that clean energy is available even when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. At the University of California, Berkeley, power engineering experts found that that the United States could generate 90 percent of its electricity carbon-free by 2035—with no extra cost to consumers.
While additional technologies are likely needed to eliminate the last 10 percent of emissions from electricity generation, there are numerous promising options and recent history has given us plenty of reasons to be optimistic about technology improvements. Luckily, we don’t need those technologies to get started today—and the climate science stresses that we cannot wait.
Transportation produces more carbon pollution in the United States than any other sector. Fortunately, EVs can run on the increasingly clean electricity to completely eliminate pollution from the vehicles themselves. New EVs are already similar in total cost to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.
Automakers themselves are already leading the transition to EVs: Among others, GM has committed to sell only EVs by 2035, and Volvo by 2030. Electric cars are cheaper to fuel and maintain, and their additional upfront cost is shrinking and expected to disappear well before the end of the decade. New research shows that electric trucks are cost-effective for commercial applications as well, and both electric cars and trucks could provide trillions of dollars of consumer cost savings over the next few decades.
To transform our transportation system fast enough to limit climate change to 1.5°C, the United States will need a bold transportation vision that includes significantly more charging infrastructure than the ~100,000 public chargers in place today, a national manufacturing strategy, public procurement that creates demand, and continued education campaigns. Even as we electrify vehicles, we will also need to reduce vehicle miles traveled by creating inclusive, compact, mixed-use communities (see below), supporting active transportation, and expanding and improving public transit.
The United States also produces large amounts of carbon pollution in our homes and businesses, primarily by burning gas for heating and cooking. Heat pumps are cost-effective solutions that are three to six times more efficient than burning gas (or propane or kerosene) for space and water heating. Heat pumps can be efficiently used throughout the United States and are already installed in 40 percent of new US homes. They provide both air conditioning and heating, serving as a “two-for-one” to reduce total appliance costs. It is essential that new building appliances that last many years are efficient and electric, especially in new homes, to have the most impact.
As we switch to clean energy and electrify transportation and buildings, efficiency measures will remain essential and cost-effective. As RMI has long championed, holistic efficiency is a nearly inexhaustible, low-cost resource. Beyond efficient lightbulbs and appliances, whole-building efficiency retrofits lower energy needs, costs, and improve comfort.
We can also scale our thinking from individual buildings to the neighborhoods, transportation networks, and industries. By building new housing in compact, mixed-use communities, we can reduce both energy needs and the demand for carbon-intensive building materials. Many more Americans want to live in these communities, but this market demand is unmet because of outdated and unfair planning rules that prevent them from being built in the first place.
The Benefits of Clean Energy Infrastructure Go Beyond Limiting Climate Change
The ambitious new national climate target will set us on a path to a more healthy, resilient, and just economy. Direct health benefits from burning less fossil fuel are large: one recent study estimated that one in eight US deaths from all causes are attributable to air pollution from fossil fuels. Historically disadvantaged communities, who bear the brunt of air pollution from highways and other concentrated pollution sources, will see an even greater benefit from clean energy infrastructure.
With intentional policy to deliver equitable outcomes, the benefits of much reduced air pollution could be just the beginning. The process to build the needed infrastructure will create jobs throughout the country, including in rural America. And new clean jobs can provide the foundation for a just recovery with promotion of equitable wages, provision of transferable skills, and lowered formal educational barriers for entry. Investments in infrastructure and new technologies available today will help spur domestic clean energy industries that can be competitive in a 21st century global economy.
The Biden administration has committed to prioritize those who have suffered the most from persistent pollution and who benefit the least from economic shifts, including low-income communities (both urban and rural), communities of color, and Indigenous communities. Clean energy infrastructure and high-quality jobs will improve the quality of life for these communities.
Building new sustainable housing and transportation infrastructure will extend these benefits by improving access to opportunity. The same planning rules that limit access to housing in walkable neighborhoods also contribute to the deep national housing shortage and follow directly from a history of racist land use policies. Equitable planning reforms, as called for by the Biden Administration, could reduce carbon pollution and start to redress these historical inequities.
Similarly, the construction of the interstate highway system exacerbated racially segregated land use patterns. Reconnecting communities and building reliable public transportation will expand access to jobs and services, especially for people who do not drive or lack access to a car. Making streets safer will save lives directly as well as enable very large health benefits from increased walking and biking.
Let’s Get to Work
By building clean energy infrastructure immediately, we can reduce the most carbon emissions over time, making it possible to meet and exceed the recent US Paris Agreement commitment. By doing so, we will give ourselves more time to figure out the technologies needed for the hardest-to-decarbonize applications.
We have the technologies needed to accelerate the clean energy transition at our fingertips. We know that clean energy investments today will bring jobs and health benefits. Let’s get to work!