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Kate Zerrenner headshot

This New Plan Charts the Path to a Zero-Carbon U.S. Economy by 2050

By Kate Zerrenner
Renewable Energy Zero Carbon Economy

Last week, the U.S. arm of the United Nations-affiliated Sustainable Development Solutions Network released a comprehensive strategy to create a carbon-neutral U.S. economy by 2050. Called America’s Zero-Carbon Action Plan (ZCAP), the agenda was developed by over 100 researchers at dozens of universities and institutions across the country and details policy solutions for the power, transportation, industry, buildings, food and land-use, and materials sectors.

According to the findings laid out in the plan, transitioning almost entirely to renewable energy by midcentury would cost only 0.4 percent more of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) per year compared to sticking with fossil fuels. And the transition has the potential to create around 2.5 million new jobs annually over the next 30 years. 

The report’s release coincides with a poll by Climate Nexus, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication which found that 82 percent of U.S. voters support a 100 percent transition to a clean energy economy. 

The reality is that the transition is already happening in the U.S. economy as solar and wind outstrip coal and natural gas in cost effectiveness. In fact, according to ZCAP, renewable energy’s share of the American power supply now exceeds that of coal for the first time since 1885. Coordinated efforts by the federal government — both executive and legislative — could spur the economy to a faster than business-as-usual transition.

Renewable energy is a good investment bet

Clean energy investments make sense as renewables continue to outpace fossil fuels on price, but they may also help lead to a more sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Plenty of investors have already begun to heed the call: New analysis from BloombergNEF estimates that global investment in clean energy will reach $11 trillion by 2050, which aligns squarely with ZCAP. However, private-sector investment must be complemented by regulatory certainty and public-sector investment to maximize potential, the plan details. 

The last time a major government investment spurred the private sector to the scale proposed in ZCAP was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). For example, in Maryland, the state energy agency estimated that its $9.4 million ARRA-funded program to install solar systems on public buildings generated over $36 million in private investments and created 80 jobs. In general, every dollar spent on energy efficiency will yield $4 in return.

Energy efficiency as a cornerstone of a zero-carbon future

Energy efficiency is the workhorse of any climate change plan. Reducing waste in energy use and demand means less energy is required to meet commercial, industrial and residential needs. Further, because generating electricity with fossil fuels uses copious amounts of water, reducing energy demand through efficiency is an effective water conservation tool. 

ZCAP proposes a National Energy Conservation Code for Buildings. This could be considered a ramped-up version of the existing International Energy Conservation Code, which is updated every few years and sets minimum standards for energy efficiency in buildings.

Buildings account for about 12 percent of direct carbon emissions in the U.S., and, as the plan points out, U.S. buildings have a larger carbon footprint than the entire greenhouse gas output of Brazil or Germany. Reducing those emissions by addressing onsite fossil fuel consumption and construction is a critical step in reaching zero-carbon. Further, construction and property management jobs by their nature cannot be outsourced or moved out of the country.

The water sector: The missing piece in the climate puzzle

The ZCAP lays out a comprehensive strategy for a zero-carbon economy, but it misses one big opportunity to contribute: the water sector.

Most climate plans do not consider the important role that the water sector could play. Many water conservation strategies can achieve the same energy savings — and therefore the same carbon reductions — as traditional utility energy-efficiency programs, but at half the cost.

Water utilities often own or lease extensive property where renewable energy could be deployed to help power their systems. Everything from biogas at wastewater treatment plants to floating solar panels that reduce the evaporation of water in retention ponds (which coincidentally also help keep the solar panels cool and improve their efficiency) should be included in any climate plan.

To stave off further impacts from climate change, every sector has a role to play. The water sector will feel the brunt of climate change — and it has the opportunity to help reach the solution. 

Image credit: Thomas Richter/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner