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Princeton study outlines viable, affordable plans for America to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

<h5>The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

A study led by teams of faculty and researchers at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) published on Dec. 15 outlines five different feasible and affordable pathways for the United States to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This brief timeline would rely on fast-paced technological development, widespread infrastructure transformations, and pervasive societal change in order to stave off the impending threats of climate change.

The teams behind the study — led by the co-principal investigators Chris Greig, Eric Larson, and Jesse Jenkins of the Andlinger Center — determined that all five proposed net-zero emissions pathways involve expenditures that remain within the standard bounds of historical annual energy GDP costs, or about 4–6 percent of the nation’s GDP. 

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The “Net-Zero America Project” was conducted over the span of two years and focuses on the granular elements of five proposed decarbonization plans and their implications on employment, land use, existing energy industries, and human health, among other factors.

It envisions achievable solutions to the existential threats posed by climate change by ensuring that the quantity of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere does not surpass the amount permanently removed using different technologies and other atmospheric removal processes, otherwise known as “net-zero emissions.” 

The study’s findings arrive at a time when the goal of achieving a carbon-neutral economy and 100 percent clean energy infrastructure by 2050 has been endorsed by President-elect Joe Biden as part of his envisioned “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice.”

Previous studies exclusively focused on the feasibility of net-zero emissions goals as well as the potential expenditures of pursuing such plans; the University study expands beyond this scope to examine the economic ramifications that implementing any one of the five outlined net-zero emissions reductions plans could yield on a state-by-state basis and even down to certain county levels.

In a video describing the premise of the Net-Zero America Project, Jenkins, professor in the Department of of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center, acknowledged the challenges involved in committing to any of the plans examined in the study.

“Getting to net-zero requires rebuilding and retooling our entire national energy infrastructure. That’s going to be a major national undertaking. It’s a substantial change across multiple sectors of the economy requiring unprecedented rates of deployment of significant scale and complexity,” he said. 

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The study used many calculations and rigorous computer modeling techniques in an unparalleled effort to closely examine the smaller-scale human impacts of advancing toward a net-zero emissions economy. The 345-page report features intensive data analyses and granular examinations of the economic and industry-wide implications if the federal government were to pursue any of the several technological pathways explored.

According to the study’s findings, adherence to a “business-as-usual” plan in which fossil fuel usage is not phased out and the goal of net-zero emissions is not pursued will cost around $9.4 trillion over the next decade. In contrast, the study projected that each of the five drafted emissions-phasing proposals would require only a 3 percent increase in annual energy expenditures — about $300 billion — throughout the decade, minuscule increases relative to historical energy spending trends.

Of the five proposed plans, the “100 percent renewable” scenario, also known as the E+ RE+ pathway, demands the highest rate of technological advancement in order to fulfill the net-zero emissions goal by 2050. This pathway would require the rampant electrification of infrastructure and transportation, such that 100 percent of vehicles would run electrically by 2050. 

Furthermore, it would be necessary to ramp up the production of wind turbines, solar plants, and currently primitive hydrogen-powered technology. This plan would prohibit carbon dioxide storage and the construction of new nuclear plants and would require phasing out fossil fuels within the next three decades.

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The E+ RE- plan, or “renewable constrained” scenario, would similarly necessitate intensive electrification action, but would impose limits on the development of new solar and wind plants while incentivizing the capture of greater quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This plan, along with the other three plans, would not require that fossil fuels use be eradicated within three decades, as the E+ RE+ scenario does. 

The E- B+ (“high biomass”) scenario would require slightly less electrification of infrastructure and transportation but would permit the construction of new nuclear, wind, and solar power plants. This plan would additionally permit significantly more biomass to be used such that land masses normally reserved for agricultural purposes would be converted to accommodate the cultivation of energy crops. 

The E+ (“high electrification”) and E- (“less high electrification”) pathways are virtually indistinguishable aside from one key difference: The former would necessitate considerable electrification of infrastructure, whereas the latter would not mandate as much electrification.

Regardless of the different mechanisms by which each plan would alter current elements of the contemporary economic and energy landscape, they all serve as viable candidates for ensuring that the United States moves toward a net-zero emissions future. 

One of the study’s most striking findings includes the ability of each plan to preclude approximately 100,000 premature particulate matter-related deaths by mitigating exposure to fine particulate matter, which would not only grant substantial health benefits but would also translate to immense economic benefits.

The study also closely examined the economic impacts of the proposed plans on a state level and determined that every state would experience net job increases in the energy industry under each plan, with nearly 500,000 to 1 million new jobs materializing within the span of this decade alone. 

Projected job losses due to phasing out of coal and oil plants under some of the plans would be more than compensated for by the predicted surge in clean energy jobs that would arise; however, states with economies that currently revolve around heavy production of fossil fuels, such as coal-laden Wyoming and West Virginia, could initially suffer economic losses if one of the five plans is advanced.

“These findings can inform critical policies that can help manage the effects of the transition and create a more just clean energy economy and society,” said Erin Mayfield, a postdoctoral researcher at HMEI who contributed to the research, in the University press release. 

The Net-Zero America Project finds that supporting the use of renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar plants leads to significant progress in approaching the net-zero emissions goal. The study additionally emphasizes the importance of encouraging the further development and refinement of carbon-capturing technologies and hydrogen power plants.

The study’s researchers believe that investment and policy-motivated efforts can expedite the development of crucial innovations such as carbon capture, biofuel energy cultivation, and hydrogen power plants in the coming decades in order to bring the nation closer to satisfying the net-zero emissions goal.

“We now have a good body of evidence that shows, ‘Yes, it’s affordable.’ We can do it,” said Larson in the University press release. “And, of course, there are significant costs of not doing anything. Climate science has shown that unchecked warming will harm communities here in America and all over the world from changes in disease pattern to the displacement of millions of people from sea level rise and flooding from more intense storms.”

Joshua Drossman ’22, an undergraduate student concentrating in operations research and financial engineering, assisted with certain elements of the “Net-Zero America Project.” He agreed with Larson, noting that all of the proposed pathways present extensively studied, viable opportunities to reach a net-zero emissions economy in the United States as soon as possible.

“[The study] really sets the stage for policy planning and emphasizes where we need to focus our time and money to meet that goal. Most importantly, we have shown that it is not only feasible, but affordable,” Drossman wrote.

“That being said, I do believe some pathways will be more challenging than others to implement and closely follow in practice. The high electrification E+ scenario, for instance, requires renewable technology build-out that is pretty ambitious compared to historical rates. Whatever the case, I agree with the team: There is no ‘best’ pathway. Net-zero is net-zero,” he continued. 

The complete 345-page report of the Net-Zero America Project’s findings can be accessed here.

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