The race to zero: can America reach net-zero emissions by 2050?

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If America finally weans itself off planet-heating emissions, the country will look and feel very different.

Landscapes from coast to coast would be transformed, carpeted in wind turbines and solar panels, with enough new transmission lines to wrap around Earth 19 times. The populace would whiz past in their electric cars, to and from homes equipped with induction stoves and heat pumps. The air would be near-pristine. Hundreds of thousands of people who would have prematurely died from the toxic fossil-fuel age would still be alive.

It’s an appealing vision, according to Eric Larson, senior research engineer at Princeton University. “In general, it will be a more pleasant place to be living in when we get to net zero emissions,” he said. “We will have cleaner air, and [will] have done our part to avoid disastrous climate change. That’s a good thing for us and the rest of the world.”

Getting to this point by 2050 is a key goal set by Joe Biden in the effort to stem the worsening impacts of the climate crisis, which is already turning large parts of the US west to charcoal and pushing water to lap at the doorsteps of the nation’s coastal cities. But avoiding cataclysm requires a metamorphosis unlike any other in American history in a narrowing window of time.

“In terms of the pace of change, it’s unprecedented,” said Larson, who led a Princeton team’s exhaustive analysis of the path to net zero emissions that is helping guide the longer-term thinking of Biden’s administration. “It’s not going to be a walk in the park. We need to start now. And if we delay starting now, we’re going to have to go even faster.”

How quickly societies move away from coal, oil and gas is in many respects the defining, existential challenge of our time, one that the White House frames in both grim realism and fresh opportunity.

“Right now we are robbing young people of their future,” Gina McCarthy, the president’s top climate adviser, told the Guardian. “But there’s a bright future ahead if we work together. It’s doable and must-do at the same time.”

So what will it take to reach net zero emissions?

The fading era of coal, which once helped forge the US as the globe’s economic Goliath, has to completely end a decade from now, with more than 1,000 coalmines and associated power plants shutting. Use of oil and gas will have to be severely scaled back, too, albeit over a longer time frame.

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In their stead, a gargantuan effort to erect solar panels and wind turbines – first an extra 300GW of wind and 300GW of solar by 2030, before supply soars further to five times today’s transmission capacity by 2050.

This endeavor will require around 590,000 sq km (or 227,800 sq miles) of America to be blanketed in turbines and panels, around a tenth of all the land in the contiguous US. If you took a stroll along an Atlantic-facing beach there would be a good chance you’d see renewable energy in all directions, with an expanse of ocean the size of Belgium dotted with towering offshore wind turbines.

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Such hyperactive construction will inevitably become ensnared in local opposition over aesthetics, but will also require an enormous reworking of America’s electricity grid. As solar and wind are intermittent, moving clean energy to all corners of the country will require the current electricity transmission system to triple in size, an extraordinary rollout of new poles, wires and substations.

“The current power grid took 150 years to build,” said Jesse Jenkins, another Princeton researcher. “Now, to get to net zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that. It’s a huge amount of change.”

Our roads will be electrified

On America’s roads, 300m new electric vehicles (EV) will replace what is currently the US’s largest source of planet-heating gases. By the 2030s, $25bn will need to be spent per decade to build a sprawling network of EV charging plugs so drivers don’t grind to a halt on the highway. Around the same time, half of all cars sold would be battery-electric before a total abandonment of the internal combustion engine is achieved by 2050.

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The middle of the century would also have to see heavy-duty trucks become either electric or powered by hydrogen fuel cells. At this point, Will Ferrell may be finally able to claim the US has beaten, or at least matched, Norway in shifting to electric vehicles.

All of this would require more than $50bn of investment in public-charging plugs, carpeting even the most remote parts of the country in charging stations.

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Our homes will be electrified

Everyday household activities cause a large chunk of current emissions, and so the net zero vision will extend to almost all facets of domestic life. Gas for heating is phased out entirely in favor of newly clean electricity by 2050.

About 130m homes across the US will be fitted with heat pumps, an electric device installed outside the home that shifts heat in or out of the dwelling, depending on the seasonal need.

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Gas for water heating is also phased out in favor of electric heat pumps.

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Gas for cooking becomes a thing of the past, with induction systems making up all new sales of stove tops 15 years from now.

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Other pockets of emissions will prove more stubborn to remove – there isn’t an immediate alternative to burning coal in the production of concrete or steel, for example. Larson envisions the use of something called an electric arc furnace, a sort of industrial Eye of Sauron that melts scrap to help turn it into new steel. Fuel for airplanes, meanwhile, will have to come from some sort of biomass or hydrogen concoction currently too expensive for airlines’ balance sheets.

We’ll build a massive network to trap carbon underground

The “net” in net zero, therefore, acknowledges that some leftover emissions will have to be offset, through a vast restoration of nature’s carbon storage – soils and trees – across an area three times the size of California alongside a ramp-up in manmade versions, with about 1,000 industrial facilities fitted with technology to capture their emissions. This, in itself, will be a mind-boggling undertaking, involving the construction of 110,000km of new pipelines – an “interstate CO2 highway system” – to convey the trapped carbon dioxide to be injected underground in rock formations found in the south-east, midwest and west coast.

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Overall, a $2.5tn investment in new energy, buildings and transport would be needed over the next decade.

Not cheap, but relatively affordable in the long term given wind and sunshine are essentially free, and the alternative – runaway climate change – would involve trillions more in economic and health damages and the upending of ordered society. Significantly, the Princeton study is based upon current technologies and doesn’t hinge upon lifestyle changes, such as a switch to vegetarianism or an end to flying, favored by some environmentalists. “I’ve heard the Impossible Burger is pretty good. I’ve never tried one, but our analysis doesn’t assume anything about changing diets or anything like that,” Larson said.

A transition without the personal hardship is a vision the Biden administration is keen to espouse. “This isn’t a time for sacrifice, people have had enough of that,” said McCarthy. “This is a time for a crisis properly addressed in a way that grows jobs.”

Larson and his colleagues largely agree with the administration that millions of new jobs will flow from churning out new electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines but they also point out that places like West Virginia, a coal heartland, will suffer in the short term. “That’s the social contract we will have to make as a country if we want to get to net zero,” Larson said. “We will need policies in place for certain communities to cushion those blows.”

The dizzying transformation will further alter a situation where, already, Tesla is the world’s most valuable car company, the US coal industry is in steep decline and, in part due to Biden’s actions, large oil and gas pipeline projects look untenable. Some people risk being left behind and simply pushing worker retraining won’t be enough. “We risk a yellow vest moment in this country that could derail the transition,” warned Stephen Pacala, co-author of another recent net-zero report, by the National Academies, in reference to the protests over gasoline and diesel taxes that roiled France.

Some jobs will be lost, such as those in the coal, oil and gas sectors, although the Biden administration is banking on these being more than offset by many more jobs emerging in wind, solar and grid upgrades

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Many of these jobs will be open to newcomers and there will be plenty of need for those will little experience in their given fields.

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The biggest growth will be in jobs that require a high school diploma or less; jobs requiring college degrees will also grow, but by only a fraction of the total number.

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Still it’s a huge transition that could give Americans some pause.

Republicans have sought to exploit such latent fears, despite clear public support for climate action, and it’s uncertain which options Congress will settle upon to yank down emissions – a clean electricity standard for utilities, a green bank to back billions of dollars worth of renewables projects or, even, the longstanding hope of a tax on emissions.

“I’m not expecting everyone will come along, I’m not Pollyanna-ish,” said Senator Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat who supports the clean power standard. “But this transition will happen. The question is whether we will lead it or follow others.”

The jarring pace of change is required because emissions cuts have been left so late. The US currently sucks about 11m barrels of crude oil from its territory every day, has its cities routinely choked by overwhelmingly polluting cars and burns fossil fuels when most Americans switch on their lights or crank up the air conditioning to beat the rising heat. The deep roots of this status quo mean that hundreds of thousands of people are routinely killed each year from air pollution alone. Those numbers will plummet in a net zero America.

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The federal government estimates that renewable energy is currently on track to double to 42% of electricity generation by 2050 – which won’t be enough. Even the slump in emissions from pandemic shutdowns last year won’t make much of a dent, with a 4% rebound in emissions forecast for 2021. Getting “back to normal” after the pandemic spells utter catastrophe in a decade where scientists have said emissions must be cut in half to avoid dangerous global heating.

“We only have so much time left,” said John Kerry, Biden’s new climate envoy. “A small window within which to make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Americans understand this is a crisis and we need to address it.”

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