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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

How the US Might Reach Biden's New Climate Goal

Kicking off a (virtual) climate summit this morning, President Joe Biden committed the United States to halving its 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030. “That’s what we can do, if we take action to build an economy that’s not only more prosperous, but healthier, fairer, and cleaner for the entire planet,” he said. The most optimistic goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—an effort that will require the participation of all of human civilization. “We must get on the path now in order to do that,” Biden added. “If we do, we’ll breathe easier—literally and figuratively.”

But what does that path look like? Which technologies will we have to roll out, and what kinds of bumps and potholes might we anticipate as the United States decreases its carbon output? Biden didn’t give details in his address, so we asked climate experts for their thoughts on how this might play out.

Fix the Broken ‘National’ Grid

With the rise of solar and wind power, the US is well on its way to decarbonizing its energy production: Emissions from the sector have dropped 37 percent since 2005, though that’s partly due to the switch from coal to natural gas. But an ancient, fragmented national grid is standing in the way of a truly green energy system.

The grid is actually two—the Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection, which meet at the eastern borders of Colorado and Wyoming—plus a smaller independent one in Texas. While these separate networks can share a bit of energy across their borders, they’re not designed to work intimately with each other.

This is a huge problem given the intermittent nature of renewables. If the sun doesn’t shine on solar panels in the Southwest, the region can’t generate power. But it also can’t import power from, say, the Midwest, where wind might be generating a whole lot of energy. And vice versa: If the wind doesn’t blow, the Midwest can’t import solar power from the Southwest. Similarly, when Texas froze in February, it couldn’t import much energy from anywhere.

Building out high-voltage transmission lines to link these separate grids will make for not only a more stable system but a greener one, since renewable energy could actually be shared across the country. “Being able to send extra power where it's needed is really important to enable more renewables,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, which advocates for action against climate change. “We're definitely not going to decarbonize the entire power sector by 2030. But we could build a lot more wind and solar, and retire all of our coal, relatively easily.”

A Better Grid Paves the Way for More Electric Cars

Once more renewable energy is being shuttled around the country, we can better decarbonize transportation. The federal government could invest massively in electric vehicle charging stations, all hooked up to that greener grid. The potential gains are huge: Transportation accounts for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, about as much as the generation of electricity itself.

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And to make people confident that their EV will actually get them to their destination before its battery dies, we need a nationwide network of charging stations. “That's potentially one of the biggest investments, is actually in the boring stuff that connects places on the electric grid,” says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. “And then you electrify everything, essentially.”

Of course, we need to accelerate the rate of electric vehicle deployments in the first place. “One of the easiest ways to do that is use the muscle of the federal government to buy a lot of electric vehicles for the entire federal fleet,” says Hausfather. At the same time, he says, the consumer market for EVs is already taking off. “We're seeing a real shift there. The amount of money being put behind electric vehicles is, to be honest, pretty staggering, especially compared to a few years ago,” he continues. “The fact that earlier this year, Tesla was worth more than all of the world's oil companies combined is certainly a sign of—probably a bubble—but also where the market thinks the future of these technologies is going.”

A greener grid will also allow for the decarbonization of buildings. Instead of heating homes with natural gas, we’ll be more likely to heat them with renewable electricity. That will be especially beneficial if energy-hungry building systems like AC units run on renewables instead of electricity made by burning fossil fuels. Efficient temperature control will be all the more critical as climate change produces hotter heat waves and colder winter storms, putting more strain on heating and cooling systems.

Deploy the Civilian Climate Corps

When Biden unveiled his American Jobs Plan late last month, he called for a $10 billion investment in a new Civilian Climate Corps, a reboot of the New Deal–era Civilian Conservation Corps. “This $10 billion investment will put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice through a new Civilian Climate Corps, all while placing good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans,” the plan promises.

The idea is to better prepare communities for the ravages of climate change, for instance by restoring wetlands to act as natural flood protection systems. But the program could also help reduce climate change by cutting emissions. Workers could help construct the infrastructure for wind turbines and solar panels, for instance, or retrofit buildings to be more energy-efficient. Even something as simple as planting more trees in cities will help reduce emissions: More vegetation means better cooling, so residents don’t have to run air-conditioners as often.

“There's plenty of important work that can be done,” says Hausfather. “It's not all just building wind turbines and solar panels.”

There may be troubles with the Civilian Climate Corps right out of the gate, though. That $10 billion would fund maybe 200,000 workers total. By contrast, the original corps employed over 500,000 people at its peak, and 3 million total. Scaling that up for today’s population, the new Civilian Climate Corps would need to employ 9 million workers over its lifetime. There’s still some hope for that—Biden’s jobs plan is a wish list, not final legislation. Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually introduced legislation this week calling for a Climate Corps that would employ 1.5 million people over 5 years.

Think Big, but Also Small

While we’re waiting for the Civilian Climate Corps to mobilize and for the national grid to green, states, cities, and even individuals can make seemingly small changes that add up to big transformations. Last month, for example, scientists ran a feasibility study that modeled what would happen if California covered all of its canals with solar panels. Someone would have to pay for all those solar panels, of course, and the researchers didn’t model potential side effects, like impacts on wildlife. But this relatively simple modification could have a big impact: The state would save 63 billion gallons of water from evaporating each year while generating half the new energy capacity it needs to reach its own decarbonization goals by 2030.

There’s also the continuing transformation of the American diet. Agriculture is responsible for 10 percent of our national emissions, much of it methane from cow burps. The promise of meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger is that not only can you eliminate the need for gassy cows, but you can run burger production on renewable energy. A faux-meat factory hooked up to a fully-green grid could theoretically have zero emissions.

The trick will be quantifying exactly how emissions will change from today to 2030. You can’t just train a satellite on the United States and measure how much CO2 is coming off it, because the atmosphere is where gas mixes from all over the planet. Instead, climate scientists like Kevin Gurney of Northern Arizona University have to aggregate all kinds of data, from traffic to electricity generation to air quality. “To get 50 percent [reduction], I think it's doable,” says Gurney. “But I just think it's going to have to mobilize an awful lot of things. And I think underneath that mobilization is just good, solid quantification—reliable, apolitical, traceable, standardized.” (Gurney has his own system, called Vulcan, a tool for calculating local emissions in fine detail.)

Reaching Biden’s 2030 goal is first and foremost about reducing our emissions levels, yes, but doing so could prompt a slew of positive side effects. Burning less fossil fuels means less air pollution and better respiratory health. It would make cities more sustainable, comfortable, and beautiful. And transforming the American landscape with the Civilian Climate Corps would help prepare the nation for the stronger hurricanes, fiercer heatwaves, and nastier winter storms that are already likely thanks to decades of prior warming.

“If we do it right, hopefully it will demonstrate that making a lot of these changes is not a sacrifice,” says Swain. “It's actually an improvement over the way things work.”

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