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The U.S. can get to net-zero emissions by 2050. Here’s how

The Biden administration is expected to announce 2050 as the deadline for decarbonizing the economy. A new report looks at how we can get there.

The U.S. can get to net-zero emissions by 2050. Here’s how
[Illustration: Daniel Salo/Fast Company]
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Dozens of countries, including Japan, the U.K., and Germany, plan to hit “net-zero” by 2050, meaning that any greenhouse gas emissions that still remain will be offset by carbon captured by methods like reforestation or direct air capture. China, the world’s largest emitter, plans to get to net-zero by 2060. When Biden takes office, the U.S. is expected to make a pledge to reach the goal by 2050. Can we do it?

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A new report looks at exactly how the U.S. can arrive at net-zero emissions—and the impacts that would have on reducing air pollution and creating jobs in each state. “Our feeling was that generally, people didn’t have a very clear idea of what it actually means to get to net-zero,” says Eric Larson, a senior research engineer at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University. He’s part of a team of researchers who spent two years on the analysis.

“We’ve mapped out, under different scenarios, what would need to be built where and by when in order to accomplish [net-zero],” Larson says. The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that the entire world will need to reach net-zero by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The report looks at five scenarios, each differing in how aggressively they rely on renewable energy or how quickly vehicles and buildings electrify. But in each case, the annual cost of energy for consumers is similar to what it is today. All the scenarios rely on boosting the rate of growth of wind and solar, so there’s four times as much renewable capacity by 2030. To manage all the new renewable energy, the electric grid will also need to expand roughly as much in the next 15 years as it did in the first 150 years of its existence (and then expand again by roughly that much in the following 15 years).

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We’ll need to start building new infrastructure to transport captured CO2 to geological basins where it can be stored underground—typically in places where oil or gas was previously extracted. “In effect, it’s putting the carbon back down where it came from,” Larson says. Roughly 50 million electric cars will need to be brought into service. And as buildings become more efficient, they’ll also start to electrify, with equipment like electric heat pumps replacing heat from fossil fuels. Forests and farms will need to capture 200 million more metric tons of CO2 each year than they do now.

This decade, the work to reach the goal could create between 500,000 and 1 million new energy jobs. (In almost all states, jobs that are lost in the fossil fuel industry will be replaced by new jobs in construction and clean energy manufacturing.) As coal is no longer used for power, the pollution cuts will also help avoid 100,000 premature deaths.

The hope is that companies can use the report to plan their own net-zero pathways, and the incoming administration can use it to help prioritize the first steps it can take to tackle climate change as it studies the scenarios. “We don’t know what the ultimate pathway is going to be,” Larson says. “But we want to show a range of options for getting there. . . . We aren’t taking a view as to what the right way is. We don’t really care which way gets it done, as long as it gets done.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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