New Study Says Biden Climate Plan Possible

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

A new study from energy experts at Princeton University delves deep into what it would actually take to make President-elect Joe Biden’s climate plan to reach net-zero emissions in the U.S. by 2050 a reality. The gist, said Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton professor and one of three leaders of the study, is that “the costs are affordable, the tool kit is there, but the scale of transformation across the country is significant.” 

Shifting the entire country to an almost completely electric existence is a massive undertaking, but Jenkins says it’s a commitment the country must make to rein in climate change before its effects become worse. 

Why This Matters: Climate change is accelerating globally and it’s already impacting the U.S. in alarming ways with record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires devastating communities nationwide. The Trump administration’s pro-industry agenda and scorched-earth exit strategy have left the U.S. far more vulnerable to climate threats and have wasted precious time in taking action. The nation must make a commitment now, or face the consequences of inaction–which are substantial and already beginning to be felt.

A shift to emissions-free energy sources nationwide is an ambitious goal but brings with it benefits to the economy in addition to the environment. Doubling down on renewable energy and its transmission lines, investing in electric vehicle infrastructure, expanding broadband, weatherizing homes and buildings, etc. will create jobs in the U.S. and provide opportunities for workers in declining industries. That scale of development, however, would require a massive investment from the federal government and will require Congressional Republicans getting on board with sizable parts of the vision.

The Electric Slide: The cost of Biden’s plan comes at a relatively low price of $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years. That may sound like a staggering number but in 2018, the U.S. spent $1.3 trillion on energy –6.2% of GDP. Making energy cheaper and cleaner saves the government and consumers money. Solar power is already the cheapest source of energy in human history and expanding renewable energy generation will continue to be a smart investment. 

But despite the “low” cost of the plan, the amount of work needed to make the most of that investment is extensive. In order to reach net-zero emissions, the country would need to add “50 million electric vehicles, quadruple the size of wind and solar in the United States, and expand the transmission infrastructure by 60 percent” within the next decade. Susan Tierney, a senior adviser at the Analysis Group who advised the Princeton report, said, “if you took it as a given that you were going to get to net-zero by 2050, this is the full onboard, all-hands-on-deck kind of thing that you would need to do…it’s overwhelming.”

The Princeton team used energy-system modeling to evaluate five scenarios on how the U.S. could reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In every scenario, they found that decarbonization meant electrification. Essentially, anything that can be made electric, will be. To do that, the nation’s energy infrastructure would need to triple. “The electric system is going to be much more visible and everywhere — more power lines, more solar panels, more wind turbines on the landscape,” said Tierney.

 

What Remains: A massive shift to electric power alone won’t be enough, the report said. Some fossil fuels, like those that fuel airplanes, will be difficult to reduce or phase out. In order to compensate for that, there will need to be infrastructure that removes carbon from the air as well. David Victor, an energy policy expert at the University of California at San Diego, says that this part of the plan will be the most difficult, “if you really take zero seriously, then how you get to zero, the last bits, is a big challenge.” 

Unfortunately, the infrastructure and industry needed to accomplish carbon capture is still nascent. The technology exists; options include pulling carbon out of the air and storing it or increasing the use of hydrogen fuels. However, in order to make these options available and affordable later, it would require rapid and generous investment now. “We know how to make clean energy cheap,” said Jenkins. “We did it for wind and solar and batteries, and now we have to do it for the rest of the tool kit.”

Politics as Usual: The report emphasizes one truth: to make Biden’s plan a reality, we have to work fast. This is easier said than done. Politics stands in the way of any major budget decisions, and Congress is notoriously slow. With the Georgia Senate runoff, and therefore control of the Senate, yet to be decided, it remains unseen how much legislative action the Biden administration will be able to accomplish to procure $2.5T investment. 

Additionally, experts expect pushback from the public and industry. Permitting issues, lawsuits, and consumer behavior are all obstacles that could slow the nation’s progress toward net-zero. Columbia University’s Jason Bordoff, says that it’s going to take more than a blueprint to achieve net-zero, “It is a reminder that if we are serious about deep decarbonization, every week needs to be Infrastructure Week from now on.”

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