Study proposes agenda for US decarbonisation

14 November 2019

Achieving net-zero emissions in the USA by 2050 will require action across society, a new report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) has concluded. It recommends the development of innovative technologies including small advanced reactors and strong policies to ensure they are deployed, including a long-term federal framework and an economy-wide carbon pricing programme.

C2ES's agenda was launched on 13 November in Washington DC (Image: C2ES)

Getting to Zero: A US Climate Agenda sets out an agenda for decarbonising the US economy by 2050, and recommends more than 150 key actions it says are needed over the coming decade. It was developed through C2ES's Climate Innovation 2050 initiative, which brings together leading US companies from the power, transportation, finance, tech, oil and gas, chemicals, cement, steel, manufacturing, and food/agriculture sectors, and builds on an earlier report, Pathways to 2050: Alternative Scenarios for Decarbonizing the US Economy.

The agenda recommends that US decarbonisation strategy be guided by a set of key objectives including achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050; re-establishing US leadership on climate change, developing and mobilising a broad array of technological solutions, promoting cost-effective solutions, protecting and enhancing competitiveness and energy security, ensuring an equitable transition, strengthening climate resilience, responding to new information and circumstances, and providing predictability to drive long-term investment.

The report then outlines a comprehensive set of policies needed over the coming decade to put the USA on a path to carbon neutrality. This is based on a long-term federal framework, including an economy-wide carbon pricing programme, with complementary measures at the federal, state, and local level in key sectors of power, transportation, industry, buildings, land use, and oil and gas. It also makes recommendations to drive innovation, mobilise finance and ensure a just transition, and advance critical technologies, and also recommends steps that private sector companies should take.

The diverse array of policy approaches recommended in the agenda are intended to work "in concert" to address the "many facets" of the overall decarbonisation challenge, it says.

"While a robust carbon price will send a broad signal across the economy to reduce emissions, companion policies … ensure that the necessary technologies and infrastructure are in place, and provide targeted incentives to both companies and consumers to accelerate the transition," the report says. "But for any given sector, it is the totality of these approaches working together, rather than any single policy, that will produce the necessary results."
In the power sector, it calls for Congress to provide tax credits for zero-carbon generation and to mandate the use of "carbon capture or corresponding sequestration-based" offsets for all fossil fuel-fired power generation.

"In the absence of meaningful economy-wide carbon pricing or a national clean energy standard, all states should adopt ambitious clean energy standards that can be met by the full range of zero-carbon technologies, including renewables, nuclear, large hydro, and fossil fuel generation with carbon capture," it recommends.

The report notes with concern the projected closures of US nuclear power plants - "currently the largest source of zero-carbon electricity" - either prematurely, due to economic pressures, or as they reach the end of their permitted lifespans.

"Without new policies, the share of electricity obtained from all zero-emitting sources is not projected to rise quickly enough over the next 30 years," it says. Congress should provide new investment tax credits to help keep existing nuclear plants in operation, and ensure "timely review" of nuclear licence renewals, it says.

To ensure the availability of a wide range of technology options, Congress should also increase funding for the research, development, and demonstration of new low and zero-carbon generation sources. Small and advanced nuclear should be a key research priority, it says.

Two-thirds of the industrial sector's energy-related CO2 emissions come from only ten out of over 100 industrial sub-sectors, the report notes, with energy used to generate heat for industrial processes the largest source of those emissions. Generating the heat required for industrial manufacturing processes with sources other than conventional fossil fuel combustion is "challenging", it says, particularly at higher temperature ranges, although advanced nuclear designs, particularly molten salt reactors, offer a zero-carbon alternative for some high-temperature heating needs.

"Congress should significantly increase funding to develop and commercialise alternative thermal heat technologies, including renewables and advanced nuclear, that can produce both heat and power, it says.

"Ultimately, the prospects for, the shape of, and the success of a comprehensive US decarbonisation strategy rest heavily on political considerations. Analysis and dialogue can help point the way, but our destination can be reached only if we are able to summon the necessary political will," it concludes.

Exelon Generation was one of the companies that participated in the study. "The message is clear - we all need to do more to reduce carbon emissions," its president and CEO, Ken Cornew, said. "As the leading producer of clean energy in the US, Exelon recognises the important role our industry plays in de-carbonising the US economy, and we're committed to helping to drive the very business and policy outcomes needed to achieve carbon neutrality."

C2ES is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organisation with a mission to advance strong policy and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote clean energy, and strengthen resilience to climate impacts. The organisation is the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which was founded in 1998.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News