Yes, America can achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Here’s how.
The loss of life and economic costs stemming from the recent crisis in Texas have demonstrated that electric power is a necessity, not an ordinary commodity. While fact finding has just begun, it’s clear that policy makers must take a hard look at the economic rules and incentives governing the power sector and assess the resilience of a vast array of critical infrastructure.
Yet for years, policy makers have been stuck in ideological debates over our power sector and how we can guarantee both reliable electricity and a clean energy future.
Some assert the solutions are easy if we would only commit to them, while others flatly oppose meaningful action. Getting serious about our climate and energy future starts with the recognition that both positions are irresponsible.
There are encouraging signs that the climate conversation has shifted from questioning the existence of a problem toward a serious focus on solutions. In the public sector, Congress passed a major bipartisan package of climate measures in late 2020 to accelerate the development of new zero-carbon technologies.
In the private sector, major energy companies such as Southern Company and Shell have pledged to decarbonize their operations and embraced the Biden administration’s commitment to achieve net-zero national emissions by 2050.
Innovation in the energy sector has traditionally been slower than in other sectors. While manufacturers of consumer technologies market new versions every nine months, energy companies build billion-dollar facilities designed to operate for 30 to 50 years. (Photo: Getty Images)
Reaching this goal will be exceedingly difficult, but the electric power industry is working on solutions that can help our industry meet an even more ambitious target of net zero by 2035.
Despite these meaningful efforts, a major hurdle remains: We need change on a massive scale in a very short time.
Innovation in the energy sector has traditionally been slower than in other sectors. While manufacturers of consumer technologies market new versions every nine months, energy companies build billion-dollar facilities designed to operate for 30 to 50 years.
3 areas for collaboration
Current incentives create restraints on rapid change, but we can overcome them and meet climate goals with effective public-private collaboration in three areas:
►Support for innovation. The federal government must invest big to help new technologies make the leap from laboratory to marketplace. There’s a reason this transition is often called the “valley of death”: Commercializing a breakthrough innovation is typically risky and expensive.
Naturally, most corporate shareholders would rather wait for another company to go first. Public funding and a willingness to invest to advance unproven technologies will be essential to meet our climate and energy goals.
►Inclusive policies. Indulging preferences for some solutions over others might be tenable if we had plenty of time and a variety of paths to net-zero. We don’t.
Getting there will require a massive increase of renewable energy; breakthroughs in energy storage technologies, such as batteries, and in new energy carriers, such as hydrogen; new investments in advanced nuclear power; non-carbon alternatives for transportation and jet fuels; technologies for capturing and sequestering carbon emissions from industrial facilities; major energy efficiency improvements; and mechanical and natural means for pulling enormous quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
We are running out of time to preserve a habitable planet for our children and everyone must start acting like it.
Southern Company is building the first new nuclear generation in the U.S. in more than three decades. Once both its new units are operating, they will be able to power more than 500,000 homes and businesses, producing carbon benefits that are equivalent to removing more than a million automobiles from the road each year.
►The ability to build big and build fast. To tackle our interrelated climate and energy challenges, America must rediscover the moonshot ambition and collective sense of urgency that allowed us to put a man on the moon in less than 10 years. A century earlier we built the transcontinental railroad in just six years.
There are many reasons why merely siting and permitting major facilities, powerlines, pipelines, and transit systems in the United States has come to take a decade or longer. But unless we’re willing to speed up these processes in a significant way, we can’t hope to scale clean-energy solutions in the timeframe scientists tell us is needed.
Acknowledge the economic costs
Finally, as we race to achieve net-zero emissions, we have to acknowledge that transforming our energy economy in the span of a generation, while absolutely necessary, will also be deeply disruptive to whole industries and communities.
Surely, the clean energy revolution will create new industries and millions of new jobs, and make America more competitive. But accelerating changes already underway will also make millions of existing jobs obsolete.
The suggestion that there will be good green jobs for everyone isn’t credible and will ring especially hollow when so many people are already struggling. Their legitimate concerns will remain a major barrier to legislative action unless the substance, scale and tone of the discussion changes to acknowledge the human costs of rapid change and until we devote the public resources needed to prevent major regions of the country from being left further behind.
The growing costs of climate change make clear that bold action is required. Leading companies are ready do the hard work and make the investments necessary to achieve net zero emissions, but we need a true partnership to succeed.
If the Biden administration remains committed to science-based goals, acknowledges the immensity of the task ahead, and works with the private sector and Congress to unleash the full force of American innovation, we can have a future that is bright, secure and clean.
Tom Fanning is the chairman, president and CEO of Southern Company. Jason Grumet is the founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Southern Company is a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Net Zero Business Alliance.
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