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Princeton researchers show the path to a future of net-zero emissions

We know the world is heating up, and we know that if that continues, bad things will happen: more severe weather events, sea level rise, loss of biodiversity, famine, disease, food shortages… the list goes on and on. It’s an existential threat to humanity.

As such, local, state and national governments in the U.S. and abroad are working to regulate the industries that release the most greenhouse gases. It even seems (with plenty of exceptions) that we’ve moved past the point where politicians in the pockets of those industries can stick their heads in the sand and say the science is “unclear.”

And while all the talk is good, and the initiatives—like New Jersey’s plan to reduce carbon emissions (from recent levels) by 50% by 2030—seem feasible, large gaps still exist in exactly how the U.S., and the world, can collectively curb the effects of climate change. Gaps like how much it will cost, what jobs will be needed, how these measures will affect each state. 

Addressing these issues is critical, because they’re often used by lawmakers and public officials to push back on aggressive plans to curb climate change.

But a massive new research initiative from Princeton University now provides answers to fill in those gaps. The wide-scoped research outlines what needs to be done, and how quickly, in each state to reach net-zero emissions (or close to it) by 2050. It also outlines how measures to reach those targets would affect land use, energy companies, employment and public health.`   

The research could ultimately help the U.S. decarbonize completely in the next 30 years.

It’s a remarkable collection of information. As the university points out, past research has typically only looked at whether it was even technologically possible to reach net-zero emissions (that is, no more greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere than can be collected and permanently removed), and maybe how much it would cost. But this research provides specific information—a blueprint—for local officials who must consider the broader effects to their communities in the transition to a net-zero future.

“Most studies do not provide this high geographic resolution for every state in the country, making it hard to tangibly appreciate what it will take to get to net-zero. Our research helps make a net-zero future vivid and real for people,” says Eric Larson, a lead researcher of the study and a senior research engineer at the Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, in a press release. “Unless we roll up our sleeves and really understand what we have to do by when, we won’t be able to meet our goals.”

The research outlines five paths to net-zero emissions: a “high electrification” scenario, in which buildings and all cars are electric by 2050; a “less high electrification” that rolls out electrification slowly and uses conventional fuels longer; a “electrification plus biofuels” option that includes an investment in growing energy crops; an “all renewables” pathway that is “technologically restrictive” and eradicates all fossil fuels by 2050; and a “limited renewables” plan that allows for the growth of renewable energy infrastructure at current rates, in concert with carbon capture and nuclear efforts.

The graph depicts annual U.S. spending on energy, as a percentage of GDP, historically and for each of the five net-zero scenarios going forward to 2050. The chart shows that annual energy-system costs for the net-zero trajectories are comparable to spending in recent history, but higher than for the reference scenario. The modeling assumed the same low oil and gas prices for the net-zero and reference scenarios. Because demand for oil and gas is higher in the reference case, it is plausible that oil and gas prices would also be higher. If that were the case, achieving a net-zero future may be less expensive than not pursuing decarbonization efforts. Graphic courtesy of the researchers.

Any of the plans will require an “historic” investment—about 4-6% of gross domestic product (GDP). But, as the research points out, the cost of the status quo, is high as well, without the benefit (and cost savings) of addressing climate change.

“We now have a good body of evidence that shows, ‘Yes, it’s affordable.’ We can do it,” says Larson. “And, of course, there are significant costs of not doing anything. Climate science has shown that unchecked warming will harm communities here in America and all over the world from changes in disease pattern to the displacement of millions of people from sea level rise and flooding from more intense storms.”

Too, the research identifies bureaucratic roadblocks to achieving a net-zero society. For instance, maps are included that show local lawmakers where the lowest-cost areas to site renewable energy facilities are, as well as where they’d integrate best into the existing energy infrastructure. 

The pathway to net-zero would create 500,000 to 1 million new jobs, the research found, with the most jobs created if wind and solar are prioritized. Every state would see a net growth in jobs, while some states would have to undertake a massive transition away from oil and coal labor.

But, the linchpin of all this is that work must begin right away. If buildings and cars aren’t massively switched to electric power in the next decade, and if other wheels aren’t set in motion, the timeline extends. And more time… that, we don’t really have.

The report is a whopper. But if you’re interested, you can view it here.