Discussions about our pending climate crisis continue although the United States still has not enacted federal-level plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by any certain date. As of September 2020, only twenty-three states and the District of Columbia had established economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions goals. For example, Oregon has a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 45% below 1990 levels by 2035 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 as well as lesser statutory targets for GHG reduction formerly enacted in 2007.
In December 2020, Princeton University completed a novel research project concluding it is possible for the country as a whole to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and outlined five technological plans with associated investments that would be required to reach this status. Their study represents the first of its kind to outline the requirements on a state-by-state basis to this level of specificity. As researchers involved in this project noted, data-driven information about resource requirements is absolutely vital to develop and implement plans that will result in the achievement of our environmental goals.
All five of the plans represent possible success routes, and no plan was given a higher recommendation for implementation than another. Regardless of the plan chosen, the team identified six pillars needed to support the country’s transition to a net-zero environment:
- End-use energy efficiency and electrification. Researchers find the expansion of electricity as a major power source for consumers foundational to achieving net-zero carbon emissions.
- Clean electricity: wind and solar generation, transmission, firm power. Overall, this pillar requires our reliance on and production of coal and conventional natural gas to decline significantly while we place financial investments in the expansion of alternative energy sources.
- Bioenergy and other zero-carbon fuels and feedstocks. This pillar outlines the requirements to convert renewable plant material into clean energy solutions such as biodiesel. Researchers note that plans will not decrease crop resources currently allocated to the production of food for animal or human consumption.
- Carbon dioxide capture, utilization, and storage. The plan includes infrastructure to capture carbon dioxide at about 1,000 facilities nationwide using a 21,000 to 25,000-kilometer interstate trunk pipeline network. Additionally, 85,000 kilometers of spur pipelines delivering carbon dioxide to trunk lines and thousands of injection wells would be needed.
- Reduced non-carbon dioxide emissions. Primary non-carbon dioxide emissions include methane and nitrous oxides. Research notes the importance of controlling the emission of these gases as we remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
- Enhanced land sinks. Natural processes can be optimized to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For example, plants remove carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. Trees commonly store this carbon internally or it is absorbed into the soil. This pillar outlines the needs to increase land zones dedicated to storing excess carbon dioxide through forest management and agricultural practices.
Project lead, Jesse Jenkins—assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, remarked of this report, “Net-zero pathways require spending a similar fraction of GDP that we spend on energy today, but we have to immediately shift investments toward new clean infrastructure instead of existing systems.” Interestingly, the report estimates our current infrastructure without concerted decarbonization efforts will cost the country about $9.4 trillion over the next ten years. In all five plans outlined by researchers, energy costs are estimated to be reduced to approximately $300 billion during that same timeframe.
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