Most Americans are in a dark mood right now. Majorities say they believe the country is in decline, and I get it. The headlines are awful, providing a steady stream of stories about crises and horrors and threats. I am careful to limit my exposure to news so I don’t become overwhelmed. And yet, something miraculous and truly hopeful is happening and mostly going un-noticed: We’re at the beginning of a turn-around in US climate action that a year ago was unimaginable.
What am I talking about? First, there was the unexpected passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022. The new law is filled with incentives for individuals, businesses, and states to build and use green energy technologies. Immediately after it’s passage, businesses began announcing plans for big investments in clean energy across the U.S. Car and battery makers, the solar and wind industries, states and individuals started changing their plans to take advantage of what’s in the new law, and the prospects for rapid decarbonization brightened pretty much overnight.
Then in late 2022, the Biden administration released rules aimed at cutting hydrofluorocarbons and methane, two extremely potent greenhouse gases. This news, though barely reported at all, indicated serious efforts are underway to get at two separate categories of potent emissions.
Then, just last month, the EPA proposed the strongest-ever emissions rules for cars and trucks. Transportation is the single largest source of carbon pollution in the U.S, and these rules, if adopted as drafted, will dramatically speed the transition to zero-emissions transportation. The proposed rules would ensure that two-thirds of new cars and one-fourth of new heavy trucks sold in the US would be all electric by 2032—nine years from now!
Finally, this month the EPA released proposed regulations for tackling emissions from power plants. Tackling power plant carbon pollution is critical for containing the climate crisis, because carbon-free electric power is a pre-requisite for eliminating pollution from buildings, vehicles, and industry.
The proposal gives the power industry time and multiple options for cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, and is designed to withstand inevitable legal challenges. A preliminary analysis found that the EPA’s proposal would help the US power sector achieve an 82% reduction in power sector carbon pollution by 2040.
Individually, each of these steps would represent progress. Taken together, they are remarkable. There are a million things to worry about, and many ways the new climate law and proposed rules could be weakened, blocked, or reversed. We have not yet stopped drilling or exporting fossil fuels, which is also a necessity. Yet it is miraculous that we now have a chance, if all goes really well, to become the first major emitter in the world to get on track to meet our Paris Climate Agreement commitment. Now we can focus on making that possibility a reality.
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.
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.