In 2014 global carbon emissions totaled 32 gigatonnes (Gt). If you’re counting, that’s roughly 32 Gt too many. Yes, zero, near-zero, or net-zero is what we want, and soon is when we need it. Failure to achieve such goals by the end of the century will irreparably damage our planet and leave us dangerously susceptible to new and harsher climate conditions, at least according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The United Nations agrees, though several countries openly reject the target. Paris 2015 should produce some positive momentum, but anything legally binding is unlikely to materialize.
In an effort to better understand the zero goal, let’s try to put a price on it. More specifically – and for simplicity – how much would it cost for the world’s highest per capita emitter, the United States to achieve zero or near-zero emissions? To be clear, the following focuses on energy-related gas emissions, which are mostly CO2 and account for about 84 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Last year, US energy-related CO2 emissions were 5.4 Gt – relatively unchanged from the year before, though up 2.5 percent since 2012. By sector: electric power is responsible for roughly 38 percent of total emissions; transportation is second at 34 percent; and residential, commercial, and industry emissions account for 28 percent. By fuel: Petroleum is tops at 42 percent, followed by coal and natural gas at 32 and 26 percent respectively.
Of course, there is no simple solution to the problem at hand, but there is a simple idea: remove fossil fuels from the picture, and across all sectors. Note: that includes point-source systems equipped with carbon capture and storage, which – while not without their merit – are an unnecessary stopgap. It also means saying goodbye to petroleum-powered transportation as we know it.
According to Stanford University scientist and professor Mark Jacobson, 100 percent renewable generation is possible now and attainable by 2050. In fact, he’s developed a plan for all 50 states – and he’s put a price on it. The proposed 7,131-gigawatt Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) system carries an upfront cost of $14 trillion and will create nearly 7 million long-term jobs (net 3 million), while addressing emissions from the three most polluting sectors. Considering market differences – and relative to GDP – the cost is comparable to a recent French study on the same topic.
As its name suggests, the WWS system is primarily wind, water, and sunlight. Specifically, 2050 US end-use all-purpose load is met with approximately 50 percent wind (onshore and offshore), 3.5 percent water (wave, tidal, hydro), and 45 percent solar (utility-scale PV, rooftop PV, and concentrated solar power). Such an energy profile will require the construction of over 500,000 new wind turbines and more than 50,000 new utility-scale solar projects of varying size and type. The overall footprint is equal to 0.43 percent of US land area – 1.7 percent will be required for wind installations, though the land will remain open to other uses.
Consider the savings. End-use efficiency improvements and electrification across all sectors will reduce end-use power demand by a mean of 35.5 percent. Total, mean avoided pollution and mortality costs are in the realm of $600 billion per year. Avoided climate costs save another $265 billion per year. On an individual level, the average consumer can expect to save roughly $261 per year in energy costs and nearly $1,500 per year in health costs.
The barriers to zero emissions and to the WWS system in particular are many, though hardly economic – WWS technologies, including battery electric vehicles, are competitive today and costs will only decrease toward 2050. To be sure, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Barring a massive realignment of political and social will however, it’s going to be a while.
First published at Oilprice.com