Scientists Say They’ve Created a Roadmap for Cutting US Emissions in Half by 2030

BONN, GERMANY - JUNE 06: Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, speaks on the opening day of the UNFCCC's SB56 climate conference on June 06, 2022 in Bonn, Germany. The June 6-16 conference is in preparation for the UN Climate Change Conference COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which is scheduled to take place in November this year. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

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Researchers of a new peer-reviewed study say they’ve developed the “first detailed roadmap” for how the United States can achieve its ambitious climate pledge to slash the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. It’s a critical target that, if missed, would likely jeopardize the larger global efforts to prevent devastating runaway climate change.

The study, published in Science late last month by some of the nation’s leading research institutions, found that it is both technically feasible and financially beneficial for the U.S. to rapidly transition to clean power sources and electric vehicles. While ambitious, such a shift wouldn’t result in investors losing money and would keep the country on track to fulfill its commitment under the Paris Agreement, the paper’s authors said—but only if policymakers act immediately to implement the necessary changes.

“The good news is that the primary barrier for meeting this target is not going to be cost. It’s really going to be about our overall policy actions,” Nikit Abhyankar, a scientist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the study, told me. But “we need to act as soon as possible, with very little room to spare.”

Specifically, the study found that the U.S. can feasibly slash half its emissions in eight years by focusing on its two most carbon-intensive sectors: electricity and transportation. The study compared six separate modeling studies, but found that most of the scenarios pointed to the same solutions: By 2030, more than half of the new cars sold in the country would need to be electric and at least 80 percent of the electricity produced would need to come from solar, wind or other renewable sources. That means building about 800 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity between now and 2030. It also means increasing EV sales from its current 3 percent to more than 50 percent.

But Abhyankar said much of that work is already moving forward, and just needs a nudge from federal and local policymakers to ensure those specific goals are met on time. Nearly 1400 gigawatts of wind, solar and storage capacity is already in a queue to connect to the nation’s power grids, he said, and several top auto manufacturers—including General Motors and Volvo—have committed to going all electric by 2030 or 2035.

“Clearly, there is interest,” Abhyankar said. “It’s really the question of getting the policy and the regulatory framework in order.”

The study also found that switching to renewables and electric vehicles should no longer be viewed as cost prohibitive. The intensive modeling of the study allowed the researchers to evaluate policies, emissions reductions and costs at an almost granular-level—including considering individual power plants and highways. 

It found that, in many cases, utilities and other energy providers will spend the same amount or more running natural-gas fired power plants than ones powered by wind or solar. And, while electric vehicles have higher upfront costs than gasoline cars right now, that price difference will even out between the two over the next five to seven years.

It won’t be long before electric vehicles that can be compared to standard sedans are costing around $20,000, Abhyankar said.

Perhaps the most interesting finding in the study is that the investors who have paid for the natural-gas infrastructure that currently powers most of the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily lose money in the transition, Abhyankar said. Instead, those gas power plants could continue to be used infrequently to help generate electricity during peak times, he said, allowing the owners and other energy investors to shift their funding to the development of renewables.

The study offers the most comprehensive set of recommendations to date on how the U.S. can fulfill its climate promise, which scientists say is key to salvaging a global effort that has struggled to achieve even modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Last week, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record-high of nearly 421 parts per million in May. And average global temperatures are now about 1.1 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average.

Scientists have long warned policymakers that allowing the world to warm an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius would result in catastrophic harm to the global ecosystems that support all life on Earth. To avoid that future, 197 nations have pledged under the historic Paris Agreement to drastically cut their climate-warming emissions in the coming years and decades.

But the success or failure of that international agreement falls largely on the actions of just a handful of mostly wealthy nations that produce the vast majority of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. That includes the United States, which alone produces 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and has historically been the biggest contributor to the climate crisis.

On Monday, world leaders meeting in Germany gave an early glimpse of how nations are progressing on their climate commitments under the Paris Agreement. It’s the first time the governments convened since COP26 in Glasgow last November, where they determined global emissions would need to be reduced 60 percent by 2030 in order to keep warming below the 1.5 degree threshold.

Last week, an annual report that evaluates the pledges of the Paris Agreement found that only a handful of nations were on track to meet their commitments—and the United States was not one of them.

Speaking to delegates at the opening of the talks in Germany, Patricia Espinosa, the United Nation’s departing climate chief, urged governments to make political interventions to get back in line with the Paris Agreement. “We can do better, we must,” she said. “It is not acceptable to say that we are in challenging times—they know that climate change is not an agenda we can afford to push back.”

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