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New report charts path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

Achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050 is feasible, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report, the first of two, presents a technical blueprint and policy road map for the next 10 years of the nation’s transition to net-zero carbon emissions.

The committee that wrote the report emphasized that immediate action and proactive innovation are required and recommended a portfolio of near-term policies to ensure equitable access to benefits generated as a result of this transition, mitigate harms to vulnerable populations and engage public participation in decision-making, and revitalize the U.S. manufacturing sector.

The report, Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System, says most near-term reductions in emissions would come from the electricity sector, electrification of vehicles, and home heating. Other industries such as aviation, shipping, steel, cement, and chemicals manufacturing will need further innovation to achieve cost-effective decarbonization, the report said.

Among other actions, the report calls on Congress and the executive branch to set an economy-wide emissions budget for the next several decades. Starting with a price of $40 per ton of carbon, increased annually by 5 percent, this budget will create an economic incentive to reduce carbon emissions and unlock innovation in every corner of the energy economy, according to the report.

To guide policymakers through the transition, the report lays out a number technological and socio-economic goals to reach by 2030 including, among others:

Producing carbon-free electricity: The nation needs to double the share of electricity generated by non-carbon-emitting sources to at least 75 percent. This will require deploying record-setting levels of solar and wind technologies, scaling back coal and some gas-fired power plants, and preserving operating nuclear plants and hydroelectric facilities where possible;

Electrifying energy services in transportation, buildings, and industry: Fifty percent of new vehicle sales across all classes should be zero-emission vehicles. The U.S. should replace at least 20 percent of fossil fuel furnaces with electric heat pumps in buildings and initiate policies so that new construction is all electric except in the coldest climate zones. Where industrial processes cannot be fully electrified, they should begin the transition to low-carbon heat sources;

Investing in energy efficiency and productivity: Total energy use by new buildings should be reduced by 50 percent. In existing buildings, energy used for space conditioning and plug-in devices should be lowered every year to achieve a 30 percent reduction by 2030. Goals for industrial energy productivity (dollars of economic output per energy consumed) should increase each year.

Planning, permitting, and building critical infrastructure: The nation should increase overall electrical transmission capacity by approximately 40 percent in order to better distribute high-quality and low-cost wind and solar power from where it is generated to where it can be used across the country. The U.S. should also accelerate the build-out of the electric vehicle recharging network and initiate a national CO2 capture, transport, and disposal network to ensure that CO2 can be removed from point sources across the country;

Expanding the innovation toolkit: The nation should triple the U.S. Department of Energy’s investment in clean energy research, development, and demonstration in order to provide new technology options, reduce costs for existing options, and better understand how to manage a socially just energy transition;

Promoting equity and inclusion: Policies should work to eliminate inequities in the current energy system that disadvantage historically marginalized and low-income populations.  For example, the U.S. should increase funds for low-income households for home electrification and weatherization and for broadband Internet access for low-income and rural areas and increase electrification of tribal lands.

The report also outlines policies targeting specific energy supply and distribution goals to allow the electric power system to depend upon flexible demand enabled by pricing reforms and infrastructure upgrades. 

“In addition, to ensure markets for clean energy work for all, the U.S. should establish manufacturing standards for net-zero appliances, require recipients of federal funds and their contractors to meet labor standards, and enforce Buy America/Buy American provisions for federally funded activities,” a news release related to the report states.

The study was undertaken by the Committee on Accelerating Decarbonization in the United States: Technology, Policy, and Societal Dimensions.