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.
Andrew Winston – Harvard Business Review, 12/27/18
We have about 12 years left. That’s the clear message from a monumental study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To avoid some of the most devastating impacts of climate change, the world must slash carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and completely decarbonize by 2050…
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It’s not usually advisable to speak for others, yet I think I know how many climate experts are feeling right now. There’s this particular twinge I feel as a climate advocate: seeing how humans are mobilizing globally and instantaneously to fight the coronavirus yet we’ve been unable–for three decades–to mobilize against the slower-moving yet ultimately more catastrophic and irreversible threat of climate change. For someone deeply engaged in climate facts, this unequal crisis response feels dizzying. And yet, our global action against the pandemic shows that we are capable of massive, lightning-fast change.
I want to talk about our emerging awareness of the scale and speed of change we are capable of in a crisis. I don’t think any of us born after World War II have seen this capacity before, but we are seeing it now. In our country and around the world, hundreds of millions of people have stopped going to work, school, church, social events, and sporting events. Leisure and work travel has been suspended, skies have cleared, traffic jams are gone, classrooms, sports arenas, and concert halls sit empty, and nearly everything considered “non-essential” that requires being with others has stopped. Along with all the tragedy, fear and insecurity of the pandemic, we are also seeing a tremendous capacity for sacrifice, generosity, and change.
Naomi Oreskes, an historian of science at Harvard I’ve long admired, recently spoke with journalist David Green about the lessons of coronavirus that might help humanity respond to climate change. She highlighted the breathtaking sacrifices people are making in response to COVID-19 that were previously unimaginable:
“I think that the crisis brings into sharp relief the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” We can act, we know how to mobilize expertise, to mobilize technology. And we now see that the American people and people around the world are great at sacrificing. Whereas, it’s always been said that the problem with solving climate change is that people are not willing to sacrifice.”
And here’s the kicker:
“People not only can, but will, sacrifice, if they’re given the right information and leadership.” (emphasis mine)
This is the hopeful heart of her message. Because, as Oreskes points out, what most people need to sacrifice to solve the climate crisis is a whole lot less than what they are sacrificing during this pandemic. Decarbonizing quickly is achievable: we have the technology, resources, and policy tools to do it without widespread harm. In fact, most experts believe a well-organized clean energy transition will lead to widespread health benefits, a surge in good jobs and economic benefits for most people.
So as we navigate this crisis, let’s keep our eye on this prize: an economic recovery that builds clean energy and decarbonizes our economy at the same time. To get there, Oreskes says, we need two key ingredients: the right information and leadership, and breaking the control the fossil fuel industry has over our country and our politics. If the last four months illustrate anything, it’s that once we commit, we can get there quickly.
Like many of you, I’m working from home, going out only to grocery shop and take walks. I’m trying to keep what I can of my schedule, which means posting my monthly blog by the end of March. But I’ve been unsure about what to say during this disorienting time. Is there a constructive way to talk about the connections between the coronavirus pandemic and the slower-moving catastrophe of climate change?
Two climate thinkers I admire have insights about what the coronavirus pandemic shows about what we care about and what we fear. These insights illuminate a possible path forward in our efforts to tackle the climate crisis, offering some inspiration.
Katherine Hayhoe: What matters to all of us is the same: the health and safety of our loved ones and our communities. Climate change and the coronavirus are alike in that they both threaten what matters to all of us.
Climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, one of my favorite climate communicators, was asked about the connections between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change by John Schwartz of the New York Times. Here is part of her response:
“This crisis really brings home what matters to all of us. What really matters is the same for all of us. It’s the health and safety of our friends, our family, our loved ones, our communities, our cities and our country. That’s what the coronavirus pandemic threatens, and that’s exactly what climate change does, too.”
Claire Cohen-Norris: A major reason we haven’t yet eliminated fossil fuels is our fear of change and disruption. Now, coronavirus has turned our world upside down. This give us an opening to make the big shifts we need to decarbonize quickly as we navigate the global pandemic.
In a new blog post from climate advocate and biology teacher Claire Cohen-Norris, she says:
“Why have we been slow to eliminate fossil fuels? The short answer is fear of disruption…Well, disruption is here. COVID-19 has made sure of that.”
The pandemic, she argues, has almost instantaneously disrupted our entire society, shifting our expectations for the future. This creates an opening for facing the climate crisis and rapidly decarbonizing our entire economy (I’ve written elsewhere about having the policy tools and knowledge to decarbonize, as soon as we build the social and political will to do so). Our world, Cohen-Norris reasons, is going to be upside down no matter what we do now. So we might as well tackle the climate crisis–a slower moving global catastrophe that threatens everything we care about–as we navigate the global pandemic.
If we can see that the climate crisis, like COVID-19, threatens all we care about, and we accept that total disruption is already here, it becomes more imaginable we can rapidly decarbonize now to protect a livable world. The possibilities are extraordinary.