A critically important document was released by the White House recently, laying out a strategy for deep decarbonization of the USA. Alas, it was released the same week that a new president was elected, one who will send it straight to the shredder, because the very first paragraph notes:
Human activities, particularly CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion, have driven atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration levels higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years. As a result, the Earth has warmed at an alarming rate over the past century, with average temperatures increasing by more than 0.8°C (1.5°F). The consequences are already severe. Heat waves and droughts are more common, wildfire seasons are longer and fires larger and more costly, and extreme weather is becoming more intense and unpredictable. Left unchecked, from 2000 to 2100, global average temperature increases of 2 to 5°C (3.6 to 9°F) and sea level rise of two to four feet are likely, and much larger increases are possible. Climate change will reduce long-run economic growth and jeopardize national security.
The document then lays out a strategy that involves transitioning to a low-carbon energy system, primarily through cutting energy waste, and improving energy efficiency. It goes after the big pieces of pie first: Buildings and cars, and not just by improving efficiency but actually changing the ways that they are designed and used.
Over the past several years, the United States has demonstrated that programs and standards to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, appliances and vehicles can cost-effectively cut carbon pollution and lower energy bills, while maintaining significant support from U.S. industry and consumers. Technological advancements will further expand the opportunities for cost-effective energy efficiency improvements. “Smart growth” strategies can also reduce the country’s structural energy needs, for example, through improved urban design that supports alternative transit options.
It’s a grand vision for essentially being carbon-free by 2050, Producing electricity from clean generation sources including nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and with any remaining fossil fuel plants hooked up to carbon capture and storage systems.
The Transportation sector would be cleaned up through the use of electric cars for light vehicles, fuel cells and biomass “drop in” biofuels. But again, the study recognizes that why we get around is has to change, and that this can have a big impact on how we get around.
Transportation energy demand is influenced not only by available technology but also by societal trends. Improved and highly utilized mass transit, higher-density and mixed-use development, increased and efficient ridesharing, and walkable and bikeable neighborhoods can reduce the usage of passenger vehicles… Further, advances in IT and the sharing economy are initiating a shift from a vehicle ownership society to one of shared mobility, where mobility is purchased by the mile rather than by the vehicle. Smart urban planning can capitalize on this shift, freeing up land that is now needed to house vehicles for alternative and more societally beneficial uses, including more compact, walkable cities. Finally, improved freight logistics and modal shifting of freight from long-haul trucks to rail have the potential to drive down the distance traveled and corresponding emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.
That paragraph anticipates the end of low density suburban sprawl, individual car ownership, and calls for more investment in transit and rail. In the buildings sector, the study proposes a mix of increased energy efficiency and electrification of space heating through the use of heat pumps. And because buildings last so long, we have to move quickly. “This slow stock turnover elevates the importance of ensuring that starting today, new buildings and buildings features are designed for optimal efficiency and low carbon emissions.”
The report goes on to cover the forest and agriculture sectors, calling for significant reforestation, better management, protecting natural landscapes:
It also calls for using more wood in construction:
Harvested wood products (HWP) can help reduce net CO2 emissions by substituting for carbon-intensive products such as steel and concrete. In the United States, new HWPs can be deployed in place of carbon-intensive concrete, steel, and aluminum products in non-residential and high-rise construction. Cross-laminated timber and other innovative wood products have enabled the construction of tall wood buildings over 10 stories, which are starting to be deployed in several U.S. cities. Buildings like shopping malls and hospitals could also begin to utilize wood products to reduce steel, concrete, and aluminum use.
Non-CO2 emissions are also considered, such as those from livestock, fertilizers, landfills, food waste and more. Refrigerants and foam blowing agents will all have to be modified. And so it goes, through every aspect of the American economy.
At many points, the document is painful to read:
Under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the United States has acted under existing laws to cut emissions with sector- specific policies, including: emissions regulations; tax incentives for clean energy technologies; standards for energy-efficient appliances, buildings, and vehicles; and voluntary partnership programs to address market barriers to low-carbon strategies. Future administrations can use similar authorities to continue on the pathway forged by the Obama Administration. Along with expanded state and local climate policies, these actions can put the country on a pathway to emissions reductions of 80 percent or more.
The strategy lays out a grand vision for decarbonizing the nation by 2050. It is totally doable too, if anyone cared to actually do it. The White House has created a well thought out road map, a coherent vision for a low carbon future; download it here before it disappears on January 21st.