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.
I bet you could use some good news today. I’ve been following three climate progress stories this month that illustrate movement toward a safer climate and a better world. Below are quick summaries of each of them with links you can use to learn more. I hope these stories encourage and inspire you!
One: The fossil fuel sector is increasingly losing its social license to operate. This month, the Vatican urged the 1.2 billion Catholics on earth to divest from fossil fuel investments. This is the latest in a string of increasingly big wins for the fossil fuel divestment movement. Since January, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and others have pledged to stop investing in the dirtiest fossil fuels. Many faith groups, universities and pension funds have declared that it is unethical (and unwise) to invest in the destruction of the earth’s climate. If the financial sector stops financing fossil fuel extraction refining and transport, the chances of preventing a runaway climate catastrophe increase.
Two: More businesses with deep pockets and vast resources are announcing plans and beginning to act to decarbonize their energy systems and contribute to climate solutions. This month Lyft committed to transitioning to 100% EVs (electric vehicles) by 2030. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S., as well as a huge contributor to local air pollution. Lyft’s commitment will help reduce these impacts, and it will also increase trust in EVs, which is a critical step for widespread adoption. Ford Motors announced plans for carbon neutrality by 2050, which will require a huge commitment to EVs and other climate-friendly changes. Other companies that have recently upped their commitments to climate action include Unilever, (one of the biggest consumer goods companies in the world), Amazon, Microsoft, and Ikea.
Three: Renewable energy is taking over the U.S. electricity grid, even without help from the federal government. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this trend, and a grid that’s powered by clean energy is rapidly becoming both technically feasible and economically competitive. A new study shows that falling costs combined with breakthroughs in storage have made it feasible to get to 90% renewable electricity in the U.S. in just 15 years while lowering costs. This level of technological progress and economic viability for renewables was unimaginable ten or even five years ago, but today, we have the ability to quickly transition our electrical grid to renewables affordably.
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.
Even at times when I can’t see a clear path to solving climate change, I find reasons for optimism. No one knows what will happen in the next few years, but a full scale transformation to contain climate change is not impossible. I take heart from the places where we are making progress. Consider these, for example:
Many states have been enacting truly transformative policies. Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Washington have committed to 100% clean electricity by 2050 or sooner, and at least six other states are considering similar legislation.
Twenty-four governors have joined the U.S. climate alliance, committing to implement policies consistent with the Paris Climate Accord. According to the Alliance fact sheet, the Alliance now represents more than half the U.S. population.
In the U.S., Coal-burning power plants continue to shut down, and half of them are already shuttered. Renewable energy continues to advance and become cheaper, and it’s providing more and more electricity, surpassing coal-fired electricity for this first time this year.
Perhaps where I find the most hope is the shift in public understanding. I read about this change in new polling, and I experience it talking to people. A large majority of Americans finally understand that climate change is happening, and many also understand the stakes and urgency of the climate crisis. For the first time, climate change has polled as the top issue among Democrats. The youth climate strikes are gaining momentum and beginning to influence governments. The strike on May 24 reportedly included protests in 1600 towns in over 125 countries. If these indicators reflect a true societal shift, then the possibility for transforming our society off carbon pollution becomes more imaginable.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Auden Schendler and Andrew P. Jones wrote:
“Solving climate is going to be harder, and more improbable, than winning World War II, achieving civil rights, defeating bacterial infection and sending a man to the moon all together.”
I think they are right. Then they say, “Let’s do it!” Because improbable doesn’t mean impossible. So when I feel down about the climate crisis, I pay a little extra attention to the latest good work on climate solutions, and I take action to help it grow. So far, this has cheered me up every time.