Oct 4, 2023 - Energy & Environment

U.S. could reach net-zero target through these key steps: Report

U.S. decarbonization pathways by scenario
Data: ICF Climate Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

The U.S. could meet its net-zero-emissions target by 2050 through three key portfolios of actions on electric vehicles, buildings and scaling clean energy, a new report finds.

Why it matters: The analysis, made by the ICF Climate Center, offers an optimistic take on what the U.S. can do with available technologies and policy levers to slash emissions. The Climate Center is a research arm within global consulting firm ICF.

Zoom in: The Climate Center's findings were provided first to Axios and show that taking major steps on electric vehicle deployment, building decarbonization and clean energy could take the country to near or at net-zero emissions by 2050.

  • The report calls for an increase in EVs on the road by 100 times current levels by 2050. This would include not only cars and light trucks but also heavy-duty buses and trucks, the report states.
  • That sounds like a tall order, especially given the increasing politicization surrounding EVs, requirements for advances in battery technology, and critical mineral supply chains.

Yes, but: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Biden's climate Law will take the U.S. close to 100 million EVs by 2050. The report pushes for a goal of 240 million EVs, which is an increase of two and a half times compared to where current policies are taking U.S. EV deployment.

What they're saying: "It's actually within grasp," Michael Jung, executive director of the ICF Climate Center and report coauthor, said in an interview.

The report cautions that flagging consumer sentiment and a needed scale-up of battery manufacturing, among other challenges, may stand in the way of achieving the more ambitious EV goals.

Between the lines: Zero emissions electric vehicle mandates could achieve the scale-up described in the report, as could mixes of other policies like tax incentives, the firm notes.

  • As other reports have concluded, current U.S. policies would significantly cut emissions through 2030 and by 2050, but they would not be enough to meet the Biden administration's emissions reduction goals.
  • But combined with current policies, the ICF proposals could cut 40% of emissions by 2030, and get to nearly 90% of emissions cuts by 2050 relative to 2005 levels, the report states.
  • The 2050 emissions would not quite hit net zero, in part due to hard-to-abate sectors such as steel, cement manufacturing and aviation. Still, they would get the country closer to that all-important target compared to existing policy paths.

Zoom out: The report drives home the speed and scope of the decarbonization challenge facing the country.

  • When it comes to buildings, for example, the authors concluded that by 2050, nearly all U.S. buildings would need to undergo some type of energy efficiency and electrification measure by 2050.
  • And with the power sector, the report's scenarios show the need to boost renewables to 85% of total electricity generation by 2050.
  • This would put more emphasis on battery storage technologies, given the intermittent nature of solar and wind power. Storage would have to increase into the hundreds of gigawatts by 2050 in order to accomplish such large emissions cuts.
  • The scenario laid out by in the ICF report envisions no role by 2050 for fossil fuel plants whose emissions are not captured and stored somehow (also known as "unabated" fossil fuels).

Reality check: The report envisions a level of collaboration between citizens, federal and local officials that may not be feasible.

  • For example, the Biden administration's efforts to cut emissions further are running up against supply chain complications and higher costs when it comes to building offshore wind installations.
  • And EVs are threatening to become a political wedge issue, given the United Auto Workers' strike, and Republican attacks on policies aimed at making these cars more attractive to consumers.
  • Neither of these developments were anticipated when the climate law was passed more than a year ago, and they illustrate that the path to net zero will not be smooth.

The bottom line: However slim and perilous, the potential exists for the U.S. to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

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