Getting to Net Zero Carbon Emissions – and Even Net Negative – Is Surprisingly Feasible and Affordable

Getting to Net Zero Carbon Emissions – and Even Net Negative – Is Surprisingly Feasible and Affordable

By Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory February 20, 2021

Regardless of the pathway we take to become carbon neutral by 2050, the actions needed in the next 10 years are the same. Credit: Jenny Nuss/Berkeley Lab

New analysis provides detailed blueprint for the U.S. to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Reaching zero net emissions of carbon dioxide from energy and industry by 2050 can be accomplished by rebuilding U.S. energy infrastructure to run primarily on renewable energy, at a net cost of about $1 per person per day, according to new research published by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), the University of San Francisco (USF), and the consulting firm Evolved Energy Research.

The researchers created a detailed model of the entire U.S. energy and industrial system to produce the first detailed, peer-reviewed study of how to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world must reach zero net CO2 emissions by mid-century in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

The researchers developed multiple feasible technology pathways that differ widely in remaining fossil fuel use, land use, consumer adoption, nuclear energy, and bio-based fuels use but share a key set of strategies. “By methodically increasing energy efficiency, switching to electric technologies, utilizing clean electricity (especially wind and solar power), and deploying a small amount of carbon capture technology, the United States can reach zero emissions,” the authors write in “Carbon Neutral Pathways for the United States,” published recently in the scientific journal AGU Advances.

Transforming the infrastructure

“The decarbonization of the U.S. energy system is fundamentally an infrastructure transformation,” said Berkeley Lab senior scientist Margaret Torn, one of the study’s lead authors. “It means that by 2050 we need to build many gigawatts of wind and solar power plants, new transmission lines, a fleet of electric cars and light trucks, millions of heat pumps to replace conventional furnaces and water heaters, and more energy-efficient buildings – while continuing to research and innovate new technologies.”

In this transition, very little infrastructure would need “early retirement,” or replacement before the end of its economic life. “No one is asking consumers to switch out their brand-new car for an electric vehicle,” Torn said. “The point is that efficient, low-carbon technologies need to be used when it comes time to replace the current equipment.”

The pathways studied have net costs ranging from 0.2% to 1.2% of GDP, with higher costs resulting from certain tradeoffs, such as limiting the amount of land given to solar and wind farms. In the lowest-cost pathways, about 90% of electricity generation comes from wind and solar. One scenario showed that the U.S. can meet all its energy needs with 100% renewable energy (solar, wind, and bioenergy), but it would cost more and require greater land use.

“We were pleasantly surprised that the cost of the transformation is lower now than in similar studies we did five years ago, even though this achieves much more ambitious carbon reduction,” said Torn. “The main reason is that the cost of wind and solar power and batteries for electric vehicles have declined faster than expected.”

The scenarios were generated using new energy models complete with details of both energy consumption and production – such as the entire U.S. building stock, vehicle fleet, power plants, and more – for 16 geographic regions in the U.S. Costs were calculated using projections for fossil fuel and renewable energy prices from DOE Annual Energy Outlook and the NREL Annual Technology Baseline report.

The cost figures would be lower still if they included the economic and climate benefits of decarbonizing our energy systems. For example, less reliance on oil will mean less money spent on oil and less economic uncertainty due to oil price fluctuations. Climate benefits include the avoided impacts of climate change, such as extreme droughts and hurricanes, avoided air and water pollution from fossil fuel combustion, and improved public health.

The economic costs of the scenarios are almost exclusively capital costs from building new infrastructure. But Torn points out there is an economic upside to that spending: “All that infrastructure build equates to jobs, and potentially jobs in the U.S., as opposed to sending money overseas to buy oil from other countries. There’s no question that there will need to be a well-thought-out economic transition strategy for fossil fuel-based industries and communities, but there’s also no question that there are a lot of jobs in building a low-carbon economy.”

The next 10 years

An important finding of this study is that the actions required in the next 10 years are similar regardless of long-term differences between pathways. In the near term, we need to increase generation and transmission of renewable energy, make sure all new infrastructure, such as cars and buildings, are low carbon, and maintain current natural gas capacity for now for reliability.

“This is a very important finding. We don’t need to have a big battle now over questions like the near-term construction of nuclear power plants, because new nuclear is not required in the next ten years to be on a net-zero emissions path. Instead, we should make policy to drive the steps that we know are required now, while accelerating R&D and further developing our options for the choices we must make starting in the 2030s,” said study lead author Jim Williams, associate professor of Energy Systems Management at USF and a Berkeley Lab affiliate scientist.

The net negative case

Another important achievement of this study is that it’s the first published work to give a detailed roadmap of how the U.S. energy and industrial system can become a source of negative CO2 emissions by mid-century, meaning more carbon dioxide is taken out of the atmosphere than added.

According to the study, with higher levels of carbon capture, biofuels, and electric fuels, the U.S. energy and industrial system could be “net negative” to the tune of 500 million metric tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere each year. (This would require more electricity generation, land use, and interstate transmission to achieve.) The authors calculated the cost of this net negative pathway to be 0.6% of GDP – only slightly higher than the main carbon-neutral pathway cost of 0.4% of GDP. “This is affordable to society just on energy grounds alone,” Williams said.

When combined with increasing CO2 uptake by the land, mainly by changing agricultural and forest management practices, the researchers calculated that the net negative emissions scenario would put the U.S. on track with a global trajectory to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 parts per million (ppm) at some distance in the future. The 350 ppm endpoint of this global trajectory has been described by many scientists as what would be needed to stabilize the climate at levels similar to pre-industrial times.

The study was supported in part by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative of the United Nations.

Use this link to view the graphs included in the article:

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Interesting article.  It is beyond me to translate the cost statements related to % of GDP to the "1$ per person per day" conclusion at the top of the page.  A dollar a day per US occupant is, ball park, $128 million per year.   This seems to be far less than the numbers thrown out by the Green New Deal.  I'm assuming that's $128M per year, between now and 2050.  

I'd be interested in seeing why this is so much different.

Final thought:  I've said this before on this blog:  China and India are putting up coal-fired power plants every year.  And, as far as my reading reveals, those two countries aren't doing much to change their ways.  I'd like to see a study that follows the path laid out in the LBNL study discussed above, but includes the rest of the world, and makes real life assumptions about how fast China and India get to "net zero" and what happens to global climate assuming that those two countries make little effort to follow Europe and the US.

The text of the legislation, which is a nonbinding resolution, lays out a broad vision for how the country might tackle climate change over the next decade, while creating high-paying jobs and protecting vulnerable communities.

Unlike a bill, this type of legislation is not presented to the president and cannot become law. Even if the Green New Deal passed in one or both chambers of Congress, separate legislation would have to be introduced to make any of the resolution’s goals a reality.

Much of the response to the proposal has focused on details that don’t appear in the resolution text. President Donald Trump, for example, suggested on Feb. 9 in a tweet that the plan would “permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military.”

There are five goals, which the resolution says should be accomplished in a 10-year mobilization effort:

  • Achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers
  • Create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States
  • Invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century
  • Secure for all people of the United States for generations to come: clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment
  • Promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (“frontline and vulnerable communities”)


Link to the full webpage:

IMO, although a globally focused study would be interesting to read, it has zero relevance for the path that the US and its partner countries must craft.  New Green jobs and business models are reason enough to take that path.  Climate change is an economic issue also.  At some point in the future, even laggards such as China and India will be forced to change the way they power their nations.  No country should be waiting on them.

Is this a "jobs program" or measures required to protect the environment?  There is no such thing as a US environment, or even a North American environment.  There is only a global environment.   My point is that whatever path the US takes, it will, in fact, be just a "jobs program" if China, India, and other nations of the world don't also get on a similar path.  What is the point if the US takes the measures, and other nations don't.  From the research, the global temperatures will rise and we will have all of the dreaded consequences.  

Call it a jobs "replacement" program if you like.  Jobs related to fossil fuels have been on the decline for a few decades.  That's not liable to slow, more likely to accelerate.  Green jobs will an economic necessity. 

No major power can be coerced into policies to lower carbon but climate disasters will be felt in those same countries.  Doing nothing because others are not doing enough or as much is a form of cutting off your nose to spite your face.  We can't wait for other countries to act.  In concert with our allies, we need to get serious and trust that as the climate warms and the far reaching impacts become undeniable, India, China and other major economies will follow suit.

I clearly misunderstand the entire "climate change" issue.  It is unquestionably a global issue.  Remember the Al Gore lectures that if we don't do XX by YY, the World as we know it will cease to exist.  Now, John Kerry is saying that if the US doesn't do XX by 2030, the world will be beyond hope.  But, wait - this is a global issue.  My point is this - how does the US define what WE must do by 2030 if we don't know what the other nations in the world are going to do?  Without knowing what the collective "Planet Earth" is going to do, then it is scientifically impossible to make such projections.  This isn't about doing nothing - it's trying to understand what steps can be taken, and some assurance that if said steps are taken, then certain results will be likely, or, stated differently, certain catastrophes can be avoided.

If one doesn't know what the entire world is going to do, then all of those "by 2050 ...." projections are just someone's best guess, and not based upon nearly enough evidence.  Maybe the North American and Europe need to do all of these things in half the time - by 2025 - if China and India aren't going to do their part.  But If China stops building new coal-fired power plants and takes other measures, then maybe 2030 isn't the date - maybe its 2040.   I'm inclined to believe that there are well-meaning competent scientists working on this, but how on earth (pun intended) can they make projections when they have no idea what 2/3rd of the world's population is going to do?

Sorry - I'm back at the "government jobs" notion again.

Although global warming is indeed a concern for every country and a threat to every living thing on the planet,  we are not yet to the point of the public support for far reaching and disruptive responses to emissions.  In other words, the US needs to do whatever the public (voters) will support.  Move too fast and spike energy prices and there will be public push back.  Do that while not investing in creating new jobs and the public, in all its wisdom, will support more Trumpier policies.  Waste another 4 years without making substantive changes and most of the less disruptive options are no longer on the table. 

Biden and Dems need to thread the needle for these 4 years.  Institute policies that begin to reduce carbon and methane emissions while supporting green technologies and jobs.  Considering the evolution in efficiencies and cost of batteries, solar and wind, 4 years will provide a much better benchmark for how much of our energy needs can be shifted from fossil fuels to renewables while keeping energy affordable.  IMO, the bottom line is that most Americans care very much what their electricity cost and not at all about how it was generated.  They will also move swiftly to EVs once cost parity is reached and passed.  Of course a few decades later many will find that they can get along just fine without owning any vehicle.  Autonomous EVs will be available on short term rental even for trips as simple as grocery store runs.  Obviously that's looking 40 or 50 years down the line but that appears where modern life is headed.  Besides the fact that many of us will like our cheaper, more dependable energy and EVs that are more efficient, cheaper to maintain and better performing than ICE vehicles, we will be even more fed up with and concerned about the increasingly disruptive extremes in weather and natural disasters.  We are slow to grasp our vulnerabilities but once we reach a point where we are personally threatened, we will force politicians to make changes and take rational actions.  As much as they are not disposed to do so.

See February 2021 in Texas. 

I read it as the infrastructure cost to convert to renewables was $1 per person per day.  

US population: 330,000,000 x $1 = $330,000,000 per day x 365 = $121,545,000,000. 

That's a little over 121 billion.  Chump change.  

Where did you get $128 million?

Cost related to % of GDP depends on what route is taken.  US GDP in 2019, around $21 trillion.  Projected cost anywhere from .02% to 1.2% of GDP.  Let's go with 1%.  That would be 210 billion dollars.

Cost of Climate Change in the US per year: 1.8% of GDP.  Almost twice as much.  Texas just blew through 3 billion in the last couple of days.

I am interested in where you are getting your numbers?  I know of no metric that would consider an additional 121 billion per year, every year as “chump change”.  And where do you get the 1.8 % GDP costs for climate change?  This is at best a WAG, and at worst an activist created talking point.  If we are to compare costs, what is the cost of doing nothing?  We all know the climate is changing, always has, always will.  Our ability to adapt is what sets us apart.  What if it’s cheaper and less disruptive to just adapt as things change?  Especially if 2/3 of the planet does not believe in the man made climate change religion and does nothing.  


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