May 29, 2019 - Energy & Environment

The policy and politics of cutting CO2

illustration of a smokestack's smoke erased away by a sponge

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A new report has good news and bad news for anyone hoping that the U.S. can steeply cut greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.

Driving the news: The nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has released a set of 3 pathways for how the U.S. could cut economy-wide emissions by 80% (relative to 2005 levels) by mid-century.

Why it matters: Right now, climate politics are unexpectedly hot, but federal policymaking is largely frozen. But that could change with the 2020 elections, and states are already a hotbed of activity.

  • The report is a detailed new addition to the world of scenario planning.
  • It involves input from a suite of companies, as well as collaboration with the RAND Corp. and the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a partnership between the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland.

The big picture: "Decarbonizing the U.S. economy requires fundamental shifts in the ways we generate energy, produce goods, deliver services, and manage lands," it states.

The intrigue: Here's the glass half-full (or empty) part. There are multiple ways to get there, and the report looks widely at not just federal actors, but also the contributions of state and local governments, corporate decisions, tech development and consumer preferences.

  • But 2 of the major pathways involve significant new federal policies — around carbon pricing and more — to varying degrees, which is obviously no certain thing.
  • The one that envisions the most aggressive federal role includes implementing an economy-wide CO2 price in 2024 starts at $40 per ton and rises 8% annually, tougher power and vehicle emissions rules, and substantially ramped up spending on low-CO2 tech R&D and deployment.

What's next: Reports on policy always force the question of what's actually feasible, which brings me to something else on my screen.

Over at Vox, David Roberts looks at how Democrats, if they gain the Senate and White House in 2020, might use the complicated process known as budget reconciliation to advance climate policy.

  • This could be key because legislation moved under reconciliation is immune from filibusters, and Democrats have essentially no chance of having a filibuster-proof majority even if they gain the upper chamber.
  • But Senate rules impose all kinds of constrains on what measures can be fit under the reconciliation umbrella.
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