Clean Energy Transition

Most fossil fuel energy is wasted–New analysis shows how to fix this!

With catastrophic fires again raging in California and hurricane Laura devastating the Gulf Coast, the urgency of the climate crisis is painfully clear. You may wonder if it’s too late to do anything meaningful to avert climate chaos. A new analysis finds we can still eliminate 70-80% of US carbon emissions by 2035 with existing technologies and tools, getting this country on a 1.5° C pathway while creating millions of jobs and lowering energy costs. And this isn’t some fly-by-night study: it was done by MacArthur Genius grant recipient Saul Griffith and colleagues, after analyzing all the available data on how energy is used in the US.

This new report, available from “Rewiring America,” shows how the US can quickly and fully decarbonize our economy with proven technologies and existing resources. David Roberts, writing about the report in Vox, describes it’s findings as “oddly optimistic.” Here are the major bombshells, as summarized by Roberts:

“In a nutshell, (the analysis shows) that it’s possible to eliminate 70 percent to 80 percent of US carbon emissions by 2035 through rapid deployment of existing electrification technologies, with little-to-no carbon capture and sequestration. Doing so would slash US energy demand by about half, save consumers money, and keep the country on a 1.5° pathway without requiring particular behavior changes. Everyone could still have their same cars and houses–they would just need to be electric.”

How is this possible? First, burning fossil fuels for energy is incredibly wasteful. Electric motors are much more efficient at converting energy into useful work. So much more efficient, in fact, that electrifying everything would cut US energy demand in half, according to Rewiring America’s report. Second, our clean energy technologies have advanced to the point where we can use them to get most of the way to full decarbonization. The five key existing and well-proven technologies we need, according to Griffith’s work, are wind and solar power plants, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and batteries.

Of course, in order to get on this 1.5° C pathway, we have to commit, and mobilize on a scale we haven’t done since World War II. Such a mobilization would ramp up clean energy and electrification as fast as possible. Within 3 to 5 years, we need to increase our electricity grid three to four fold, our EV production four fold, our wind turbines 12 fold, and our solar modules 12 fold. Then, after this initial period of mobilization, every time a diesel or gas car gets replaced, it has to be with an EV. Every time an oil or gas furnace goes out, it is replaced with a heat pump, and so on. Talk about a green recovery jobs program!

Two other gems I want to mention from this report: First, the benefits of following this plan are extraordinary even without the potential to protect a climate compatible with human societies thriving. Clean air, good jobs, cheaper energy, quieter roads and cities, and on and on. Second, this analysis doesn’t rely on, or even consider, the carbon emissions that are possible with traditional efficiency measures such as insulating buildings, double-glazing windows, driving less, or downsizing homes. Adding any of these would only increase our chances of decarbonizing in time to do our part to get on a 1.5° C pathway and protect a livable climate.

If you want to dig deeper into this, you can download the full report here. What this compelling study shows is that it’s still within our capabilities to tackle the climate crisis while creating a green recovery from the economic devastation of the pandemic. If you needed any more motivation to help elect climate champions this November, maybe this will be it.

What the coming together of the left on climate looks like

In just six weeks, we’ve seen three major climate proposals indicating that the factions of the Democratic Party are aligning on climate policy after a decade of disarray and disagreement. This policy platform on climate shows how much interest groups and politicians agree on and lays critical groundwork for enacting a transformative green recovery and a just transition to a clean energy future. It illuminates a path to finally passing big, bold climate policy solutions at the national level.

If you aren’t someone who spends time in the weeds of climate change news, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. With the pandemic raging, the economy destabilizing, and a rational racial justice/policing crisis, unification of the left on climate policy hardly made headlines. Yet if you are hoping that after the next election we will enact a green recovery and a just transition to a clean energy future, take a moment to celebrate, because such action just got a lot more likely.

Here’s a quick summary: On June 30th, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued its report . This included a detailed Climate Crisis Action Plan put together by House Democrats. On July 8, the Biden-Sanders unity task force on climate (chaired by John Kerry and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) issued its policy recommendations. Finally, on July 14, Joe Biden released his Build Back Better proposal on climate, a $2 trillion proposal for clean energy investments, economic stimulus, and a transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Here’s how journalist David Roberts summarized this in Vox: “For the first time in memory, there’s a broad alignment forming around a climate policy platform that is both ambitious enough to address the problem and politically potent enough to unite all the left’s various interest groups.”

These plans have a lot in common: they all set standards for net-zero emissions by 2050 (or sooner), they all focus on climate justice, and they all include large-scale public investment.

  • Setting standards: Two-thirds of US emissions come from sectors where clean alternatives are already available–cars, electricity, and buildings. Details vary, but the plans agree on a common core of strong performance standards and incentives for these big three emitters to make rapid progress on emissions in the next ten years. Doing so can get us a long way toward meeting the 2030 emissions reduction goals the IPCC says are critical to prevent the worst, most catastrophic climate change impacts.
  • Climate justice: Unions, fossil fuel workers, and frontline communities helped develop these plans. They include polices such as coal worker transition programs, equity mapping to identify vulnerable communities and send public investment there first, and incentives that favor union workers for clean energy jobs.
  • Large public investment: Support for green industries, manufacturing, research, and job creation is in these proposals, as are a number of ideas for combining recovery from the COVID-10 economic crisis with transformative climate solutions.

Pre-pandemic, when I used to give in-person talks about climate solutions, I sometimes ended with this quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” This summer, the left’s new unity on climate policy makes transformative climate progress seep a little less impossible.

If you are interested in more details about these plans, see links below.

Carlie Clarcq, “Biden’s clean energy plan proposes economic recovery through green investments,” Climate Change, July 23, 2020.

David Roberts, “At last, a climate policy platform that can unite the left,” Vox, July 9, 2020.

Turning the COVID-19 carbon crash into our last, best chance

Working from home, I look out my window at the altered world. No cars pass for long stretches but walkers are always about, and I hear bird songs I’ve never noticed before. I drive so rarely that I haven’t charged my electric car since mid-March. Of all the changes (many of them painful) brought by the pandemic, road traffic decline might be the one I like most. This quieting down of our engines, it turns out, might also be providing us with a precious gift–a little bit more time to avert the full-scale climate catastrophe we are heading for.

As you’ve probably heard, COVID-19 restrictions have caused a worldwide decline in carbon emissions. According to an analysis by the scientists who track the annual Global Carbon Budget, at the peak of COVID-19 restrictions in early April, global CO2 emissions were down 17%. A whopping 43% of lowered emissions came from road traffic decline. Depending on the lifting of restrictions and our behavior in the coming months, this analysis predicts a 4-7% decline in overall greenhouse gas emissions for the entire year.

Many pundits have already weighed in on the meaning of this carbon drop—some framing the emissions decline as impressively large, others as surprisingly small.  But what I see in this pause in greenhouse gas emissions growth is possibility. In all likelihood, this pandemic moment presents our very last real chance to preserve a livable climate.

As a climate advocate, I think a lot about how we might still bring greenhouse gas emissions down fast enough to prevent the full-scale climate catastrophe we are hurtling toward. According to the UN’s most recent scientific report, this requires us to begin steep emissions reductions by 2020 to get on a pathway to 50% emissions reductions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. Few people have really taken onboard what this means or what the stakes are. I believe many in the youth climate movement do understand the science and the stakes. That’s why they are so angry and so scared.

Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising 1% per year for the past decade. Now a terrible global event has had the side effect of reversing this upward trend for 2020. This has bought us a bit more time, offering us just one last golden opportunity.

I’m not advocating giving up our modern lifestyles, or living under COVID-19 restrictions any longer than necessary: in fact, just the opposite. I’m searching for a pathway we can take to cut emissions fast enough to have a chance of preventing massive human suffering, preserving modern civilization, and allowing our children a shot at a habitable world.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, tackling the climate crisis is within our technological, policy, and economic capabilities. Advances in clean energy and energy efficiency are continuing to make decarbonizing more feasible and ever cheaper. Capable experts are devising workable plans that combine economic recovery from COVID-19 with rapid decarbonization. Polls show a strong majority of Americans agree it’s time to tackle the climate crisis.

To help this moment become a turning point, we can each stick with those changes that have surprised us by making us happier (for me, this includes less driving, more walking, and giving up the gym). We can advocate for changes in our communities that speed decarbonization and increase well-being (for example, cities making more room for walkers permanent). We can block the bailing out of fossil fuel companies and support clean energy and energy efficiency projects instead. We can give our time, money and votes to elect climate champions in the next election, and each election that follows. Then we can advocate for passing bold policies for a climate-friendly recovery and a livable future.( Here’s one way to help).

This is not a rehearsal. The recovery we choose will determine the fate of our species, so let’s do this!