We Know How to Cut Climate Pollution But Need Political Will

To do its part in mitigating climate change, the United States must drastically reduce carbon pollution by 2050. Energy efficiency—using less energy to get the same (or better) services like heat and light—plays a huge role by providing ways to cut both energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in half over the next three decades.

According to a new analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE)Halfway There: Energy Efficiency Can Cut Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Half by 2050—the great news is that we already have the tools to affordably do this. ACEEE analyzed various pathways of measures (like making sure buildings don’t leak out heat) and policies (like setting ambitious energy-saving targets) that would dramatically reduce energy waste from a range of sources, such as factories, vehicles, buildings, and appliances. 

ACEEE, Half Way There

Together, these opportunities could save the U.S. $730 billion in energy costs by 2050. And, with the right policies in place, these actions could build an incredible network of high-quality jobs (e.g., family-sustaining wages, benefits, paid training, and career development), help Americans who are struggling to pay their energy bills, all while cleaning the air and improving our health.

Haven’t we heard this before?

Yes. Efficiency has long been recognized to provide extensive benefits while growing the economy. Last year, a report from the International Energy Agency showed how countries could achieve more than 40 percent of the Paris Agreement's pollution reduction goals through efficiency. And NRDC's own 2017 report on the pathway to a safer climate future includes energy efficiency as one of four pillars that could slash U.S. greenhouse gas pollution 80 percent by 2050. There are additional ambitious plans to use the enormous efficiency resource to help stave off climate change.

What's new in this report is a more detailed road map, plus a call to action for decision makers to adopt policies that capture these enormous benefits. This stands in sharp contrast to the Trump administration's priorities, which include dismantling fuel economy standards and hobbling the nation's efficiency program for appliances and equipment.

What’s also different now is the growing urgency around the climate emergency that has been sparked most recently by disappearing ice in Iceland, raging fires in the Amazon, and an incredible youth movement calling on adults in power to do something about this disaster.

Where will the emission reductions come from?

Making transportation more efficient (like improving how many miles we get per gallon of fuel) delivers nearly half of the emission reductions, with the building sector contributing another third. The industrial sector also accounts for a fifth of the emission reductions. 

ACEEE, Half Way There: Emission Reductions by Sector

To achieve these reductions, the industrial sector will need to take more actions like continuously improving their energy performance and electrifying its processes. The transportation sector would need to shift to electric cars and trucks and continue fuel economy gains under new standards. Improved freight system efficiency and more efficient airplanes could avoid even more emissions.

ACEEE, Half Way There: Emission Reductions by Measure

In buildings, most of the savings come from a combination of retrofits to existing structures, zero-energy new construction, and appliance standards. Adding in smart control technologies, such as learning thermostats and energy management systems, could cut even more.

After first ensuring buildings are highly efficient, both existing and new buildings need to move toward electricity for space and water heating. Upgrading the efficiency of a home or business before installing a heat pump to heat or cool a space, for example, will allow for a smaller sized system (which means it’s cheaper) and result in a better customer experience. Updating efficiency standards and expanding the ENERGY STAR® program would also drive better appliances. The report also cites the need for new electric grid technologies to reduce power losses in the distribution system.

What do we have to do to make this happen?

Policy makers must step up their game, especially in light of this administration’s blatant disregard for the well-being of people living in America. Thankfully, we have leaders rising to the occasion from cities to states and even companies like automakers and utilities are taking action in spite of the short-sided and pollution-friendly decisions coming out of Washington D.C.

What’s reassuring about this seemingly insurmountable problem is that we not only have affordable existing technologies to use but we also know how to design policies to make action happen.

ACEEE, Half Way There: Emission Reductions by Policy

To cut emissions through efficiency while ensuring that no one is left behind in this expanding clean energy transition, we must design policies through the lens of community needs and make sure there are specific requirements that the strategies will lead to high-quality jobs throughout the economy.

We will also need to partner with a wide variety of stakeholders to scale up efforts, including, for example, local community organizations, consumer advocates, social justice and environmental justice organizations, the companies and non-profits that will do the work, local governments, and utilities—who are the largest investors in our clean energy transition.

Specifically, we need policies that:

  1. Set statewide energy efficiency targets that ensure efficiency is the first resource used before investing in other options to serve customer needs,
  2. Expand building codes and appliance standards while also making sure that the rules are enforced,
  3. Fund and support extensive existing building upgrades,
  4. Require smarter energy management of our industries and buildings,
  5. Provide better mobility options and dedicate funding and programs to people who may have greater barriers to adopting these options,
  6. Invest in switching to electric options for buildings and transportation,
  7. Pass state and local ordinances requiring certain performance standards, and
  8. Continue to support research, development, and deployment to bring the next generation of smart and affordable technologies to cut energy waste.

No doubt that some of these efforts will be more challenging to implement than others, but we have been known to solve seemingly impossible problems before. As the many protestors across the world tell us: “There Is No Planet B.” It is beyond time to step up the pace and capture the savings from actions that will increase our health, lower energy costs, create good jobs, serve people historically left behind, and grow the economy all while ensuring that there will indeed be a healthy planet here for generations to come.

About the Authors

Lara Ettenson

Western Director, Planning and Operations, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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