We Can Do This
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It’s hard to think of a more alarming news story: The United Nations said yesterday that the world failed to reduce carbon emissions in recent years and was on pace for catastrophic damage from climate change.
The U.N. called its own report “bleak,” and I know that bleakness can often lead to a sense of hopelessness. So I want to emphasize that the situation is far from hopeless. In the last few years, some places have begun to show what a transition to a clean-energy economy would look like.
The main message from those places: We can do this.
As the report notes, 65 countries and some “subnational regions,” like California, have begun moving toward net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by the year 2050. That’s the benchmark many scientists favor, because it has the potential to restrict planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — which would still be damaging but also radically different from, say, 2.5 degrees.
What does net zero by 2050 look like?
It starts with transforming the electricity sector, which has already begun. Since 2007, the share of electricity generation in the United States that comes from fossil fuels has fallen from 72 percent to 63 percent, according to a recent Center for American Progress report that imagines a net-zero economy. This decline is partly a result of federal investments in clean energy and state mandates to reduce pollution. The economy is doing just fine in places that have adopted those mandates, like California, Colorado, New Jersey, New York and Washington.
Beyond electricity, getting to net-zero emissions requires changes to transportation, manufacturing, agriculture and more. It requires much more federal investment in research, as well as an open-minded approach that includes nuclear energy and new technologies that can remove previously emitted carbon from the atmosphere. A pollution tax would help, too. All of these changes have the potential to create well-paying jobs, in addition to avoiding widespread global destruction.
I’m not arguing for blind optimism here: We’re not doing nearly enough right now. Only a few major national economies (Britain, France and Germany) have committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, and the Trump administration is deliberately moving in the wrong direction. But creating a clean economy is within our power.
“It’s a monumental task,” John Podesta, who helped lead climate policy in the Obama administration and is a co-author of the Center for American Progress report, told me. “But it’s exciting. You can build a more just and equitable economy. It’s a big thing that can power innovation, capital formation, business development and employment.”
And the alternative is downright bleak.
For more …
What about China and India? Both countries have made significant progress recently, in large part because the Obama administration put climate policy at the center of American diplomacy and created pressure on the issue. China and India aren’t doing enough, but both would do more with American leadership — as they’ve done before. The Democratic presidential candidates are rightly promising to prioritize the issue again, as this Council on Foreign Relations summary shows.
Last week, Donald McEachin, a Democratic congressman from Virginia, introduced a bill that would commit the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050. “McEachin’s bill, which has more than 150 co-sponsors in the House and the backing of national environmental groups, has been in the works for months,” Robin Bravender of the Virginia Mercury wrote. “McEachin, who isn’t a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, called that legislation ‘aspirational,’ noting that it lays out broad goals but doesn’t articulate a path forward.”
In a Times Magazine story this year, I described the success of state mandates in more detail.