December 10, 2021 Did Nebraska Just Commit to Net Zero? Not Quite

Breaking news out of Nebraska has climate activists running victory laps online and touting a political milestone: the first Republican-leaning state to commit to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. Today’s Climate wraps this week by exploring why this is big news, but is also not quite what it appears to be.

On Thursday, the Nebraska Public Power District, one of the largest utilities in the state, approved a resolution to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. It joins the state’s other two major utilities, Omaha Public Power District and Lincoln Electric System, in committing to decarbonization, a move that ensures that nearly every Nebraskan now receives electricity from a supplier that has pledged carbon neutrality, KRVN reports. Every utility in Nebraska is publicly owned.

“Nebraska just passed 100% clean electricity!” Nick Abraham, the state communications director for the League of Conservation Voters, wrote in a Thursday afternoon tweet that’s been shared more than 2,000 times and had garnered more than 17,000 likes as of Friday morning. “Nebraska becomes the first red state in the country to commit fully to net-zero electricity.”

The popularity of such a notion comes as no surprise. The United States has a yawning divide when it comes to how the two major political parties treat the climate crisis, with some Republicans not regarding it as a crisis at all and actively fighting the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is human-caused. The thought of a conservative-led state defecting from the Republican party’s historic disregard of climate change is an alluring one indeed.

But while Nebraska’s announcement marks an important shift in the state, it may not be as groundbreaking as some activists claim, said Dan Gearino, our resident clean energy expert at Inside Climate News and author of the Inside Clean Energy newsletter.

“The resolution from Nebraska Public Power District is a big deal because it means that the state’s three largest utilities or groups of utilities all have goals for net-zero emissions, but it’s important not to overstate what this does,” Gearino said. “This is not a statewide clean energy requirement as other states have done.”

Decarbonizing the power sector is critical to combating climate change. In Nebraska, the power sector makes up nearly 44 percent of the state’s total carbon emissions, according to government data. So, a commitment like this packs a serious punch if achieved. Still, a commitment in state law would have broader implications, especially if it went beyond the power sector to include transportation, which makes up roughly 28 percent of the state’s emissions. It would also send a stronger political signal to private industry polluters to start shifting their practices.

What may be particularly notable about Nebraska Public Power District’s new pledge is what it doesn’t promise. Net-zero pledges have been criticized by climate activists as hollow because they often rely on squishy math and an overreliance on unproven technologies like carbon capture and storage, ICN’s Nicholas Kusnetz reports

Giving utilities or oil companies more leeway because they’ve promised to ramp down their emissions sometime in the future can hinder more aggressive progress in the present, activists have said. And reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will only become more difficult the longer utilities take to map out exactly how they plan to achieve that goal.

“One rule of thumb for spotting a serious clean energy plan is whether it has interim goals for the years between now and the final goal,” Gearino said. “The Nebraska Public Power District resolution doesn’t have any interim goals.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate. I’ll be off all next week, but I’ll be back in your inbox on Dec. 21.

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