After years of being stymied in their quest to define a long-range strategy for dealing with climate change, Democrats suddenly find themselves in the position of doing just that.
Yesterday, they were given a road map.
A report released by an influential group of scientists and other experts paints a picture that is full of optimistic proposals. It envisions the United States carefully building a political and technical foundation over the next 10 years for reaching net-zero emissions between now and 2060.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study puts it this way: The United States “is the best resourced nation in the world for a transition to net zero.” It has “abundant solar and wind resources both onshore and offshore. ... The country has plentiful and economically accessible natural gas, and enormous geologic and terrestrial reservoirs for CO2 sequestration.”
Called “Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System,” the 209-page report is the first of two planned strategy guides to help regions, states, cities, businesses and voters understand what may be needed to build a $350 billion foundation of federal programs, proposed actions and new agencies over the next decade.
Its goal is to create a cleaner energy system and help ease the projected impacts of global climate change.
The panel’s 17 members said yesterday that the second report, expected within a year, will predict falling prices for clean technology if the United States acts quickly, similar to the way costs plummeted for renewable energy.
In an interview, Stephen Pacala, a Princeton University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who chaired the panel, explained that the first report was timed to coincide with the possibility that a new president would need early guidance.
“We decided to accelerate it on the chance that this would be a pregnant moment for its receptivity,” he said, noting that “there is a very broad overlap between what the Biden administration has proposed and what’s in our report.”
The report was put together “without consultation” from President Biden or his advisers, he added.
The panel landed on a major economic lever to make the transition to net zero, after lengthy debates: an escalating federal carbon tax that starts by imposing a $40 tax on every ton of carbon emissions this year.
It would raise an estimated $2 trillion by 2030 to provide revenues to pay for the policy moves and rebates to help disadvantaged groups from being overburdened by the tax.
According to panel members, some wanted a higher tax, but most studies have focused on the $40 level as having the most understood economic impacts. It would rise 5% annually.
While Congress has previously rejected carbon taxes, the report said that an economywide price on carbon “would unlock innovation in every corner of the economy and send appropriate signals to encourage a cost effective route to net zero.”
The report states that emphasizing renewable energy would create 1 million to 2 million jobs, most of them for blue-collar workers. It also proposes $5 billion a year for a decade to provide support for students studying low-carbon technologies and policies.
The report notes that the costs of a U.S. net-zero economy by midcentury are “technologically feasible” but warns that getting there will require heavy political lifting by Congress and future administrations.
It says such an ambitious transition would pose unknown challenges ahead and that solutions will require continuing political acceptance. The need for prompt, coordinated actions by multiple levels of government and businesses over the next 30 years, the report adds, “puts it on the edge of feasibility.”
But it says an “appropriate flow of policies” would produce a number of national benefits simultaneously, including a cleaner energy system, high-quality jobs, “improving international competitiveness of the economy,” and “reestablishing global leadership in energy innovation and technology.”
“The health benefit alone turns out to be significantly larger than the cost,” said Pacala, pointing out that the report predicts that “a transition to net zero in the United States would nearly eliminate adverse health impacts of fossil fuel use.”
The report estimates that air pollution currently causes a half-million premature deaths, especially among poor people and communities of color in heavily congested areas.
“You should want to do this even if you didn’t care about climate; that’s a really big difference,” Pacala said, referring to previous reports that have traditionally focused on the technology needed to combat climate change.
The report points out that some of the previous obstacles have been removed, creating more opportunities for cleaner electric grids. Over the past 10 years, the cost of wind power has dropped by nearly 70% and that of solar power by 90%. Meanwhile, the cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped by 85%.
Adding more energy storage and carbon capture and sequestration to the mix would extend the uses of renewable energy and further reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other major greenhouse gases, the report adds.
It also says that the planned electrification of light- and medium-duty vehicles and more stations to recharge them will make substantial reductions in emissions. The addition of emerging technologies for what is called “direct air capture,” or devices that can remove CO2 from the air, will help cut remaining pollution.
The report calls for tripling Department of Energy funding for research, development and demonstration of low- or zero-emission technologies over the next decade. It suggests that a number of federal agencies might have to be created to help industries and groups promote and implement new technologies.
They might include a federal “National Transition Task Force” to help evaluate long-term implications for transitioning workers, communities and families. Another could be the White House “Office of Equitable Energy Transitions” to act on its recommendations and track progress.
An independent “National Transition Corporation” might be needed to help communities and regions implement new technologies and help mitigate impacts, such as the loss of fossil fuel jobs. The panel also suggests that a “Green Bank” be capitalized by $30 billion to encourage rapid expansion of private investing.
The National Academies, which produced the report, started out as the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, when it was chartered by Congress and approved by President Lincoln to provide the government with advice during the Civil War.
It was expanded during World War I, when the government found itself overwhelmed with requests for advice. It absorbed the National Academy of Engineering in 1964 and the Institute of Medicine in 1970.
After it was created in 1863, it defined itself as “an almost independent organization representative of the basic and applied sciences.” Its panelists, Pacala pointed out, are paid for their expenses but don’t receive salaries.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.