Imagining Zero Carbon

NRDC President  Frances Beinecke’s book sets forth a goal of net-zero climate pollution in our lifetime.

As Frances and I are both in our 60s, that implies we need to get there quickly.

Here is why this ambitious goal is necessary: Climate disruption from carbon pollution is cumulative. The closer we come to meeting the most ambitious goal we get shoot for, the less the risk of catastrophe and the less the assured damage from climate change.

What would it look like to be climate neutral?

Those opposed to protecting the climate have argued that it is impossible to imagine a very-low emissions plan that doesn’t disrupt the economy.  This blog outlines such a plan, and shows that reducing emissions to zero within about 20 years is a plausible goal for the United States, and the comparably ambitious plans can be implemented elsewhere in the world as well. The details are presented in Invisible Energy.

There are two key foundations of the zero-carbon plan. The first is increased reliance on energy efficiency. As we switch power and fuel choices from polluting sources to clean, renewable sources, the job is a lot easier if we don’t need as much energy in the first place. The second foundation is energy policies that focus on continual improvement in the best clean energy technologies offered on the market, where newly unleashed market forces can bring these technologies to scale. 

Why is efficiency so important?

First, it is BIG. As Frances noted, studies by organizations such as the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) report the potential to save 30% by 2035 through technologies that are already available and cheaper than doing nothing. This is an extreme lowball estimate, an observation that the study itself recognizes and discusses.

Specifically, the NAS study contains several  case studies of savings levels far beyond the levels that the summary says are possible. The problem is not that the savings are not truly that large, it is that the data and methods needed to build from these case studies to an economy-wide number are lacking. So the outcome is that the numbers that people read—the numbers that are used to answer the question “are we on the track towards zero emissions?”—look too small. This is why we can do better than any published target that I have been able to review: all of these targets are based on 9 separate timid assumptions about technological possibilities. (Eight of these are described in Invisible Energy.)

Efficiency is also important because policies that increase efficiency also remedy the largest factors holding back the American economy—factors that cause about half of Americans to say that the nation is still in a recession.

How far can we go with efficiency?

It is less useful than one might think to set a goal based on detailed analytics, sector by sector, use by use, because such detailed plans look too much like how the Soviet Union used to do central economic planning. We now understand that markets quickly diverge from even the most carefully structured plans, and that they diverge in one direction: they do better than the plan. A broad general plan with market incentives to produce continual improvement shows a pathway to zero without getting overly specific about HOW to do it. I am sure that Apple didn’t have a specific plan in 1994 to introduce anything close to an iPhone 6 by today, but rather had a plan for continual improvement in customer satisfaction and corporate competitiveness. So here is the broad outline of a plan for net zero carbon pollution:

Buildings account for almost 40% of carbon emissions; but many developers are now constructing net-zero-energy buildings—homes and office buildings that generate as much solar energy on-site as they use. Even more contractors are building commercial buildings and homes that use only half of conventional buildings do, and in the case of commercial, they don’t even cost more to build.

Energy policies that require a basic level of efficiency and then offer recognition (such as LEED or Energy Star) for going beyond, and sliding-scale incentives for going far beyond code, can increase the savings percentage over time, getting to zero by 2020-25. California has established “net-zero by 2020” as its policy goal for new homes.

Automobile efficiency has been increasing over the last several years, and manufacturers are now required to improve emissions performance by 4.8% annually for some ten years. After 25 years we will have more than tripled fuel economy. We are nowhere near the physical limits with current technologies, so this improvement rate can be extended for decades. And undoubtedly it can be increased beyond 4.8%: in the appliance arena, the combination of carrots and sticks has worked better than regulations alone, and we have yet to test out serious incentives for fuel economy.

But it gets better than this. Hybrids can be designed to charge their batteries using electricity, a larger and larger fraction of which can be generated by renewables. Car charging is an ideal application for renewables, since it can be ramped up or down as winds increase or decrease.

Location efficiency—the ability to meet your needs and wants for access to the places you want to go, is another large efficiency resource. It is already catching on in the market: the most popular neighborhoods have become those with high walkability and good transit access. The demographics for 2035 suggest that all net need for new housing is in such areas. This will reduce the need to drive by half or even three-quarters.  Where transit access and walkability are created by new construction in existing areas, we can cut the need to drive from existing residents along with newcomers.

Industry emits about 30% of greenhouse gases, and studies of industrial efficiency show that even well-run companies ignore efficiency investments with rates of return of 30% and higher, despite being able to borrow at less than 4% interest rate. So most of the opportunities are not implemented, and studies typically find 20% savings potentials. The actual savings potential is larger, because most of the biggest opportunities cannot be identified on a generic basis but require plant visits and access to privileged information about production processes.

The Department of Energy has developed a voluntary program that encourages participants to reduce energy use at a planned annual rate. Its success could be improved by adding carrots (and sticks), as many other countries have done. The Netherlands, for example, has achieved an average 2.4% annual improvement rate for the last 15 years based on voluntary “Long Term Agreements” with industrial companies.

Industry can do better than this with consistent efficiency policies, because typically industries regard energy as a fixed cost rather than a cost that can be controlled. As a consequence, most do not have the staff or even consultant expertise to find and realize opportunities. Worse, vendors of efficiency technologies know this, and find it unprofitable to invest in new and creative approaches when they hardly are selling the old ones. But policy can get us out of these vicious circles.

Saving energy in the supply chain. Leading American companies are now looking for, and finding, ways to save energy indirectly through purchasing components or supplies with lower impacts. So if concrete uses less energy than steel for the framing of a particular high-rise hotel, the builder can choose the lower-impact option and save industrial energy even before the concrete producer implements its efficiency program.

Behavioral Approaches

This discussion does not even consider restraining consumerism or improving personal energy-conserving behaviors, but these offer an additional opportunity to cut emissions. The world can reduce climate emissions by people's choices to eat less meat, live in smaller houses, walk or bike instead of driving, etc.

The power of continual improvement

Where the United States or regions in the U.S. have tried, we have achieved rates of efficiency improvement of 4.5-6% annually, or even higher. The efficiency of new homes in California, of home refrigerators, and of the whole operations of the 3M Company, have all improved at rates of 4.5% or higher continually for the past 35 years.

I have estimated that if the nation is serious about energy and climate policy, we can get energy use down to one-third of its current level by 2050; this is a level that easily can be supplied 100% by renewables. This emissions savings would be achieved at a net economic savings in the trillions of dollars.

Can we do this earlier than 2050? For new buildings and products, clearly the answer is “yes”, since a smooth approach to zero gets us very close to zero in the few years before. For cars and for industry, the answer is also pretty much “yes”, although we may need the last few years for the rate of improvement to compound enough. We can assuredly get very close to zero.

The biggest problem will be existing capital stock: cars, trucks, absence of railroads and their related efficient land use development patterns. Buildings that are inefficient can be retrofit to almost the same efficiency levels as new buildings, albeit at higher cost. But no one has proposed a way to retrofit cars and trucks for efficiency. Is that because it is impossible or just because no one has tried? Retrofitting neighborhoods for non-auto accessibility is possible but may take a long time. But software-based ride-sharing programs may be able to reduce driving and its associated costs even in the very short term.

So I am optimistic that the U.S. can meet a net-zero carbon goal in 2035. (The life expectancy for 60-somethings is about 20 years.) Especially if we set the goal and try seriously to meet it.

But CAN we meet it in fact? No one that I know of has tried to sketch out analytically a path for doing this. So the answer has to be more intuitive. But it is important to answer it as well as we can, because until the question is taken seriously, no one will spend the time and money to develop the more analytic answer. This is part of the dilemma that setting the goal is trying to get us away from.

The real answer to this question has three parts:

  1. If we DON’T set a goal this ambitious, we will be sure we WON’T meet it.
  2. If we DO set the goal, we just might. It is technically possible. At worst, we may find that some of the final pieces are too expensive, so we delay them.
  3. If we don’t meet the goal, we will come far closer than we would have had we not set the goal.

Our nation hasn’t really had ambitious goals that can motivate our young people for decades. Maybe a commitment to keep the planet productive and healthy could be a cause that can reingnite patriotic commitments, especially since there is no economic or other sacrifice involved.

What about countries like China?

For the buildings and transportation sector, the same types of policies that can lead to near-zero emissions in the US will work the same in China. We may not be able to neutralize all carbon pollution from China this century, but no one assumes we will be able to do so, anyway. Stabilizing climate does not depend on it.

Actually an ambitious goal may be easier to achieve because Chinese buildings are not operated in as demanding a way as American buildings, and most of Chinese building area for 2050 has yet to be constructed, so it is cheaper and easier to make it efficient.

But what about the industrial sector? There is some hidden good news about China here: almost half of China’s industrial energy goes to make construction materials for new buildings: cement, steel, glass, etc.

More attention to the use of less energy-intensive materials could compound the savings from improving efficiency at the steel plants, cement plants, etc., and better codes and standards that assure a longer lifetime for buildings means a lot less need for demolition and reconstruction.

The hidden good news is this: since China’s population is stabilizing, the predicted amount of new building construction will drop drastically after 5 or 10 years. So half of China’s rapidly-growing industrial output will start rapidly shrinking, and soon, even without efficiency policy.

So what is a reasonable goal for China? Perhaps the first observation is that an American organization shouldn’t be trying to answer that without the active partnership of a Chinese organization. The more useful answer is that countries are looking at each others’ policies, at their economic and environmental track records of success or failure, and at what methods they are using to get to societal goals. If Americans can set a climate goal of zero net by 2035, we are in the best possible position to work collaboratively with China on setting a sensible goal for them.

Concluding Thoughts

America, through its NGOs such as NRDC, and through its states, its citizens, and its national government, can set the tone for global ambitions as goals, provided that we walk the walk. Our successes in energy policy have been replicated globally since the 1970s, simply because their effectiveness at creating prosperity and jobs have been obvious, and have become recognized. This year we have the opportunity to renew this leadership with ambitious goals of net zero climate pollution, and the actions to realize them within our lifetime.

About the Authors

David B. Goldstein

Energy Co-Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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