ANALYSIS — Eliminating or offsetting all of the U.S. economy’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to help avert environmental catastrophe will require an all-hands-on-deck approach, according to established science, and the exhaustive climate report House Democrats released Tuesday provides a rubric for just that.
Achieving that goal may also require significant political gains by Democrats in November, enough to take control of the House, Senate and White House to push aside Republican opposition that would prevent the ambitious agenda from being even partially realized.
The report suggests legislative and policy changes that touch virtually every corner of the economy. It emerged from a 17-month effort by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which, for all the ideas it included, rejected many others.
Here are three intriguing policy provisions included in the report — and three that were left out.
IN: National zero-emission vehicle standard, electric fleets.
The report recommends a national “sales standard” to sell nothing but zero-emission cars by 2035 and heavy-duty trucks by 2040, paired with an emphasis on a nationwide electric vehicle charging network for plug-in vehicles.
It also would require the federal government to ramp up the share of electric vehicles in its fleet, reaching 100 percent by 2035 and 2040, respectively, for light- and heavy-duty vehicles.
The transportation sector is the biggest source of carbon emissions in the U.S., accounting for roughly 30 percent of domestic emissions.
IN: Advancing toward a “supergrid.”
Two problems facing the electric network in America could be solved, or at least mitigated, with a national grid.
Today there are three major portions of the U.S. power grid: a Western section, an Eastern section and Texas’ network. Combining these parts into one could allow low-carbon electricity to be distributed more broadly and carry more juice more efficiently, the report says.
“There are connections between them, but they cannot carry large volumes of electricity. A better-connected national grid would enable the country to maximize the use of the lowest-cost sources of renewable energy, which may be located far from population centers,” it says. “More geographically diverse sources of renewable energy would help balance the variability of renewable energy from individual sources.”
A recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study found a national grid could save the public more than $47 billion and generate up to 80 percent of the country’s total electricity use from zero-carbon energy sources. That study is incomplete, and its findings have not been released, according to the NREL, which is funded by the Department of Energy.
IN: A revival of the “social cost of carbon.”
When the Trump administration came to power, the president’s Cabinet worked to strip an accounting metric known as the “social cost of carbon” from government regulations.
The Obama administration put it in place in 2009. It’s a way of measuring the overall damage of climate change and its byproducts, such as stronger hurricanes, floods and wildfires.
“Congress should direct the next administration to reconstitute an interagency working group to develop a new SCC that reflects the best available climate science,” the report reads in part.
OUT: Much international planning past November.
The next major U.N. climate conference was scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in November, just after the presidential election. Democrats had high hopes that a president-elect could declare that the U.S. would rejoin the Paris climate agreement.
Thanks to the coronavirus, that’s unlikely to happen. The summit has been delayed a year, and the select committee’s work does not provide much detail beyond the hope a new president will support the Paris agreement.
“The majority staff for the Select Committee anticipates a future president committed to climate action will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, but, in the meantime, Congress can take steps to ensure that the United States continues to support global climate solutions,” the report reads.
The Trump administration has taken steps to withdraw from the deal but can’t complete that process until November. If President Donald Trump is reelected, he could finalize a withdrawal from the agreement.
OUT: A clear path to decarbonize aviation and shipping.
While the coronavirus pandemic has triggered a decrease in air travel, leading to fewer emissions from the sector, the industry remains one of the biggest sources of carbon pollution worldwide.
Taken together, shipping and aviation constitute about 4 percent of global emissions, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. That total is unlikely to drop soon without significant changes to consumer behavior, technological advances or both.
Change won’t be easy, as the report points out. “Full electrification of airline fleets, if technologically feasible, may be decades off,” it says. And on the water, ships could account for 18 percent of global emissions by 2050, according to the International Maritime Organization.
It’s also difficult to regulate both industries because they are inherently international, especially in the shipping business. What nation is responsible for the emissions of a ship registered in the Marshall Islands, operated out of Hong Kong and manned by a Malaysian crew?
Case in point: Negotiators at the 2015 U.N. climate talks in Paris punted on aviation and maritime shipping emissions, leaving them for another summit.
The committee recommends funding research and development to create cleaner-burning ships and planes but stops short of a comprehensive solution.
OUT: Clarity about nuclear power’s domestic future.
Nuclear power generates 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S., all with zero carbon emissions.
But the industry is fading in the U.S., where commercial reactors are on average 38 years old and there is no long-term solution for the problem of spent nuclear fuel. The plants are expensive to build and require highly skilled technicians, and the waste problem has not been addressed.
The committee calls for a federal clean energy standard for utilities to meet, a move that would benefit nuclear power in America since it’s the biggest source of consistent zero-emissions electricity.
While the report endorses the idea of small modular reactors — devices that could be carried by rail — it does not issue groundbreaking suggestions about how nuclear will survive in a decarbonized America.
The authors suggest a task force to study waste storage and incentives for utilities to move waste off-site. But they break little ground over the waste hurdle.