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Amy Brown headshot

Energy Efficiency Alone Could Halve U.S. Emissions by 2050

By Amy Brown
Energy Efficiency

TriplePundit is covering the U.N. General Assembly and Climate Week NYC through the weekend. You can follow our coverage here

A resounding theme of Climate Week 2019 has been to find opportunities crucial for taking on climate action now. And some of these solutions are low-hanging fruit – as in being smarter with how we consume energy.

New research shows that energy efficiency measures can slash U.S. energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 50 percent by 2050, moving the country halfway towards its climate goals.

The report, by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), offers a road map for dramatically reducing energy waste. It identifies ambitious but cost-effective and technically possible measures that would avert emissions of nearly 2,500 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide — equivalent to all emissions from cars, trucks, homes, and commercial buildings in 2050.

“Energy efficiency is an urgently needed climate solution,” ACEEE executive director Steven Nadel, a report co-author, said in a press release. “It can deliver swift, robust emissions cuts. We cannot wait to take action.”

That may partly satisfy impatient activists like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and the estimated 4 million people inspired to join her on September 20 for what was likely the largest climate protest in world history. Thunberg, speaking to the UN General Assembly earlier this week, scolded world leaders for “empty words,” telling them, in a voice fierce with emotion: “For 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?”

For the ACEEE, the solutions are well in sight, and its report, Halfway There: Energy Efficiency Can Cut Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Half by 2050, identifies 11 opportunities and related policies to achieve the necessary energy savings needed to reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 100 percent by 2050.

Transportation, which in the U.S. is currently in the midst of a slow transition to all-electric vehicles, would deliver nearly half (46 percent) of the emissions reductions. Buildings would deliver a third and industry a fifth. For energy savings, building would deliver 40 percent of the total, followed by transportation (32 percent) and industry (27 percent).

In each of these three sectors, the report outlines what the next 30 years could look like if industry leaders seize the opportunities. Within the transportation sector, a significant shift to electric cars and trucks and continued fuel economy gains under new standards could reduce vehicle carbon emissions by approximately 50 percent. Less driving in cars and light trucks, improved freight system efficiency, and more-efficient airplanes could further cut emissions.

Within buildings, new homes and commercial offices could cut their emissions by 70 percent with efficient design and the use of cleaner electricity. Existing homes and buildings can slash emissions with energy-efficient upgrades, smart control technologies, and electrification of heating and cooling. Adding to total emissions cuts are updated efficiency standards for appliances and equipment and growth in the Energy Star program.

Finally, the industrial sector could deliver substantial emissions cuts with strategic energy management, smart manufacturing, industrial process improvements (including electrification strategies), changes in feedstocks and new process technologies and materials.

Energy efficiency measures have already proved to be an effective tool for climate mitigation, noted Kathleen Gaffney, co-author of the report: “It’s already made an immense difference. Without efficiency measures implemented since 2000, global emissions in 2017 would have been 12 percent higher.”

“The good news is that we can start right now by investing more in energy-efficient appliances, buildings, vehicles, and industrial plants,” Lowell Ungar, ACEEE senior policy advisor and report co-author, added. “But to achieve maximum emissions reductions, we need political and financial investments that go far beyond business as usual. If we do so, the 2050 payoff will be impressive.”

The report says government policies and programs alone would deliver about $700 billion a year in energy savings by 2050. Plus, the authors note, such investment will create more jobs, boost grid resilience, reduce air pollution and improve people’s health.

Business leaders who want to be aggressive on energy efficiency, however, face an uphill battle with the Trump administration, which is moving to weaken efficiency standards for lightbulbs, appliances and vehicles.

Image credit: Pixabay

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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