By Perry Bryant
In a recently released report the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (Academy) recommends that the United States adopt a modest carbon tax, use clean energy standards and energy efficiencies measures, as well as adopting other policies, in order to achieve net-zero emissions in the U.S. by 2050. Net-zero emissions means that we will continue to emit carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere even in 2050, but we will be taking out of the atmosphere at least as much CO2, through planting trees for example, as we emit. Net-zero emissions, while an ambitious goal, is what is needed if we are to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.
This is no ordinary report. Many consider the Academy to be the nation’s leading scientific organization, and their recommendations deserve careful consideration.
The proposed carbon tax is paid by CO2 emitters and passed along to consumers in the form of higher energy costs. It starts at $40 for every ton of CO2 emitted, and increases by 5 percent a year. A portion of the tax would be rebated to low-income families to offset their higher utility bills. The Academy rejected a $100 per ton CO2 tax, which many economists believe is needed in order to decarbonize the U.S. economy, because of the negative impact that the much higher energy costs would have on energy consumers.
The recommended clean energy standard for electrical utilities would require CO2 emissions to be reduced by 75 percent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. Currently, West Virginia generates over 90 percent of its electricity from coal, the most carbon intensive fuel used in generating electricity. Achieving a 75 percent reduction in less than 10 years is a heavy, but necessary, lift.
The Academy recommends that 50 percent of all new car and SUV sales and 30 percent of trucks sales be electric vehicles by 2030. All these electric vehicles will require development of an extensive charging infrastructure: think replacing the gas stations that are currently on every other corner with charging stations for electrical vehicles.
The proposed energy efficiency standards include requiring new buildings to be designed and constructed to use 50 percent less energy.
The Academy also recommends revitalizing American manufacturing to produce high-paying jobs with solid benefits. Creating manufacturing jobs in solar, wind and batteries is essential, in my opinion, if addressing climate change is going to attract wide-spread support among Americans.
These policies proposals are designed to achieve the overarching strategy of: a) emphasizing energy efficiency; b) removing carbon dioxide from the production of electricity; and c) then electrifying as much of the U.S. economy as possible, including the transportation system (electrical vehicles), the heating and cooling of buildings (installing heat pumps), and heavy industries (wherever it’s possible to switch from fossil fuels to electricity).
Consider for a moment the magnitude of the changes that are being proposed in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In the next 15 to 30 years, we will have to replace the current coal- and most of the gas-fired power plants with energy from sources other than fossil fuels: solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear. And we also have to replace all the energy that we currently use driving our cars, SUVs and trucks; as well as replacing the energy currently used in heating and cooling our homes and commercial properties; and replace the energy used in making everything from aluminum to pharmaceuticals.
Given the massive expansion of the use of electricity, it’s not surprising that the Academy recommends statutory changes in order to upgrade the electrical grid making it more resilient, and to make it easier to construct significant miles of new transmission lines. The report does stress the need to preserve the opportunities for meaningful public input in siting these transmission lines and other infrastructures.
The need to build massive new miles of high-voltage transmission lines can be reduced through installing rooftop solar, which the report barely mentions. United Solar Neighbors (SUN), a nonprofit organization that supports solar installation, has begun an initiative to install solar on 30 million homes. If successful, that would be about one in four houses in America, and would reduce the need for some of the proposed new high-voltage transmission lines.
Another contentious infrastructure recommended by the Academy is the construction of CO2 pipelines to transport capture CO2 from industrial plants to places where it can be sequestered underground. Some existing natural gas pipelines could be repurposed to carry CO2 reducing the need for construction of new pipelines, although this will only ameliorate, not eliminate, the need for new CO2 pipelines.
These intrusive infrastructures need to be weighed against the benefits of adopting clean energy. We will not only mitigate the effects of climate change (less severe hurricanes, fewer wildfires, shorter droughts, etc.) but also put an end to mountaintop removal, end black lung, greatly reduce the need for fracking, and vastly improved air quality, particularly in our inner cities. Harvard University and other universities, for example, released a report last month linking almost one in every five deaths worldwide with fossil fuels emissions.
PDF copies of the Academy report, Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System, can be found at http://nap.edu/25932 . The report states that the transition to net-zero emissions by 2050 “provides an opportunity to build a more competitive U.S. economy, to increase the availability of high-quality jobs, to build an energy system without the social injustices that permeate the current system, and to allow those individuals and businesses that are marginalized today to share equitably in future benefits.” That is a wonderful vision. But it will not be easy.