National Academies of Science Maps the Road to Net Zero

Most of the technology required to fully decarbonize the US economy already exists, and those technologies are now more cost-effective than technologies relying on fossil fuels, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.Because of the rapid decline in the cost of new technologies, for wind and solar power and lithium-ion batteries, e.g., decarbonization is not only technically and financially feasible, but the most economically attractive path. Decarbonizing the economy could create 1-2 million new jobs in the US, mostly for blue-collar workers.

“Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System,” provides a comprehensive road map for transitions in energy, innovation and manufacturing, to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury. It is the first of two planned strategy guides to help all the layers of government as well as businesses and voters understand what is needed to build the foundation of federal programs, proposed actions and new agencies over the next decade, for the US to reach this goal. A panel of scientists and other experts conducted the study.

The research panel noted that social factors may be the final barriers to a complete decarbonization of the US economy. They said that the transition is “an opportunity to build an energy system without the injustices that permeate our current system.” If the US fails to ensure an equitable transition to the new economy, leaving disadvantaged communities and displaced workers behind, it could lead to social unrest that derails the transition. They suggested that the US build a political as well as technical foundation over the next 10 years.

The panel chose an escalating federal carbon tax as the best economic lever to make the transition to net zero. Putting a price on carbon, they wrote, “would unlock innovation in every corner of the economy and send appropriate signals to encourage a cost effective route to net zero.” They endorsed a tax starting at $40 per ton of carbon emissions, with an annual increase of five percent. The carbon tax would raise an estimated $2 trillion by 2030, funds to jump-start the transition, and help offset the tax burden for disadvantaged groups.

The report warns that, while achieving a net-zero economy by midcentury is technologically feasible, it is ‘on the edge of feasibility.’ Achieving this ambitious goal will require heavy political lifting by both Congress and future administrations. The transition will pose unknown challenges over the next three decades, requiring ongoing political support as well as prompt, coordinated actions across all levels of government and by businesses.  Establishing the right policies would bring a number of national benefits simultaneously – a cleaner energy system, high-quality jobs, reestablishing US leadership in energy innovation and technology, and improving our international competitiveness. Furthermore, even aside from climate benefits, health benefits would exceed the transition costs.

Download the full Report, Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System, here.