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Saturday, February 13, 2021

Looking at the economics of shifting to a green economy

New Study Presents Affordable, Job-Growing Plan to Combat Climate Crisis

By ROGER WARBURTON/ecoRI News contributor

Projected growth in Rhode Island jobs above the 2021 employment rate from implementing the ‘high electrification pathway,’ according to study Net-Zero America. (Roger Warburton/ecoRI News)

It has been known for sometime that a reduction in greenhouse gases would have significant public-health benefits: less pollution means fewer deaths, fewer emergency room visits, and a better quality of life.

It’s also well known that reducing greenhouse gases would decrease the financial damages from hurricanes and storms, from droughts, and from coastal flooding.

The question, until now, has been: How do we pay for the necessary infrastructure changes?

A recent Princeton University study, Net-Zero America, presents a practical and affordable plan for the United States to reach net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Although it’s a massive effort, the plan is affordable because it only demands expenditures comparable to the country’s historical spending on energy.

“We have to immediately shift investments toward new clean infrastructure instead of existing systems,” according to Jesse Jenkins, one of the project’s leaders.

The plan is also practical, because it uses existing technology. No magic tricks are required.

The plan is also remarkably detailed with analyses at the state and, sometimes, at the county level. For example, the report includes an estimate of the increase in jobs in Rhode Island if the plan were to be implemented.

In nearly all states, job losses in the fossil-fuel industry are more than offset by an increase in construction and manufacturing in the renewable-energy sector.

The motivation behind the recent study is clear: Climate change is “the most dangerous of threats” because it “puts at risk practically every aspect of our material well-being — our safety, our security, our health, our food supply, and our economic prosperity (or, for the poor among us, the prospects for becoming prosperous).”

The challenges are not underestimated: the burning coal, oil, and natural gas supply 80 percent of our energy needs and more than 60 percent of our electricity. Their greenhouse-gas emissions can’t be easily reduced or inexpensively captured and sequestered away.

The plan

The Net Zero America study details the actions required to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. That goal is essential to avert the costly damages from the climate crisis.

The study highlighted six pillars needed to support the transition to net-zero:

  1. End-use energy efficiency and electrification/consumer energy investment and use behaviors change (300 million personal electric vehicles and 130 million residences with heat pump heating).
  2. Cleaner electricity (wind and solar generation and transmission, nuclear, electric boilers and direct air capture).
  3. Bioenergy and other zero-carbon fuels and feedstocks (hundreds of new conversion facilities and 620 million t/y biomass feedstock).
  4. Carbon dioxide capture, utilization, and storage (geologic storage of 0.9 to 1.7 giga tons CO2 annually and capture at some 1,000 facilities).
  5. Reduced non-CO2 emissions: (methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorocarbons).
  6. Enhanced land sinks (forest management and agricultural practices).

One of the study’s key findings is that in the 2020s all scenarios create about 500,000 to 1 million new energy jobs across the country. There are net job increases in nearly every state.

The pathways

The plan outlines five distinct technological pathways that all achieve the 2050 goal of net-zero emissions.

The authors don’t conclude which of the pathways is “best,” but present multiple, affordable options. All pathways only require investment and spending on energy in line with historical U.S. expenditures; around 4 percent to 6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The five pathways are:

  1. High electrification: Aggressively electrifying buildings and transportation, so that 100 percent of cars are electric by 2050.
  2. Less high electrification: This scenario electrifies at a slower rate and uses more liquid and gaseous fuels for longer.
  3. More biomass: This allows much more biomass to be used in the energy system, which would require converting some land currently used for food agriculture to grow energy crops.
  4. All renewables: This is the most technologically restrictive scenario. It assumes no new nuclear plants would be built, disallows below-ground storage of carbon dioxide, and eliminates all fossil-fuel use by 2050. It relies instead on massive and rapid deployment of wind and solar and greater production of hydrogen.
  5. Limited renewables: This constrains the annual construction of wind turbines and solar power plants to be no faster than the fastest rates achieved in the United States in the past but removes other restrictions. This scenario depends more heavily on the expansion of power plants with carbon capture and nuclear power.

In all five scenarios, the researchers found major health and economic benefits. For example, reducing exposure to fine particulate matter avoids 100,000 premature deaths, which is equivalent to nearly $1 trillion in air pollution benefits, by midcentury compared to the “business-as-usual” pathway.

Wind and solar power, along with the electrification of buildings — by adding heat pumps for water and space heating — and cars, must grow rapidly this decade for the nation to be on a net-zero trajectory, according to the study. The 2020s must also be used to continue to develop technologies, such as those that capture carbon at natural-gas or cement plants and those that split water to produce hydrogen.

“The current power grid took 150 years to build. To get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that. It’s a huge change,” according to Jenkins.

Roger Warburton, Ph.D., is a Newport, R.I., resident. He can be reached at

References: Net-Zero American, E. Larson, C. Greig, J. Jenkins, E. Mayfield, A. Pascale, C. Zhang, J. Drossman, R. Williams, S. Pacala, R. Socolow, EJ Baik, R. Birdsey, R. Duke, R. Jones, B. Haley, E. Leslie, K. Paustian, and A. Swan, Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts, interim report, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., Dec. 15, 2020.