To avoid catastrophic climate change, the U.S. needs to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning that emissions shrink so much that whatever’s left can be offset by nature or by technology such as machines that can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. A new report from the nonprofit Energy Innovation says that the goal is possible—and reaching it comes with other benefits, most notably adding nearly $1 trillion to the GDP.
“Our modeling, along with several other recent deep decarbonization studies, shows getting the U.S. to net-zero emissions by 2050 is feasible and would generate millions of new jobs and significant GDP growth for the U.S.,” says Robbie Orvis, director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation, where a team used a detailed modeling tool to analyze the policy needed to get to net zero. “Much of the reductions required can be achieved with today’s technology. But to be on track to net zero and also be on a 1.5 Celsius degree compliant pathway, the U.S. must get started right away.”
Some of the necessary tech has dropped dramatically in cost. Solar panels are 90% cheaper than they were in 2009. Wind turbines are more than 70% cheaper. LED light bulbs are 80% cheaper. Batteries used in electric vehicles or to store renewable energy are 80% cheaper than they were in 2013. Still, even though economics are helping the transition, it won’t happen fast enough without strong policy.
Hitting the goals by 2030 will require completely eliminating coal power and getting to 80% clean electricity, reaching 100% clean electricity by 2035. New cars and buses will have to be electric by 2035. Trucks will have to be electric by 2045. Since most of the buildings that will exist in 2050 already exist today, we’ll have to start retrofitting them, replacing fossil-fuel-powered heaters with heat pumps, for example, and replacing gas stoves with induction stoves or other alternatives. Factories running on fossil fuels will have to switch to fuels such as green hydrogen or electricity. It will require capturing methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more potent than CO2. While a huge part of the transition can happen with existing technology, it will also require continuing investment in R&D for parts of the economy that are harder to decarbonize, such as long-haul trucking.
All of this work will boost the economy as the country is recovering from the pandemic. “Transitioning to a low-carbon economy requires building and deploying a lot of new stuff, such as building and installing solar and wind power plants, installing new electric equipment in buildings, and retooling vehicle manufacturers to scale up electric vehicle production,” Orvis says. “All this manufacturing and deployment means tons of new jobs and growth in U.S. manufacturing industries, and it creates a huge opportunity to revitalize the U.S. economy.”
By 2030, the transition would increase the U.S. GDP by roughly $500 million, and by 2050, roughly $1 trillion, due to several factors: It would create 3.1 million job-years (a “job year” is one full-time job for one year) by 2030, and 5.5 million by 2050. As climate pollution drops, the improved air quality would also have significant health benefits, avoiding two million asthma attacks a year by 2050 and more than 6.5 million lost workdays, along with avoiding 65,000 premature deaths per year.