The 17% Cut In Carbon Pollution By 2020: Yes We Can Get There From Here

The price of solar photovoltaics (PV) modules continue to decline.

Dan Lashof via NRDC’s Switchboard

Last July I published an issue brief called Closer than You Think, pointing out that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2011 were lower than many people realized—about 9 percent below their 2005/2007 peak—putting President Obama’s 17-percent-below -2005-levels reduction target within reach. Since then recognition that U.S. emissions have been falling has become more widespread. In October, Dallas Burtraw and Matthew Woerman at Resources for the Future argued that the U.S. is “on course” to achieving a 16.3 percent reduction by 2020. Last week the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) released a report documenting the rapid growth in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and natural gas generation over the last few years and estimating that U.S. 2012 carbon dioxide emissions were almost 13 percent below 2005 levels. This week the World Resources Institute released an analysis asking “Can The U.S. Get There From Here?” and senior associate Nicholas Bianco said “The U.S. is not yet on track to hit its 17 percent target.”

So are we there yet or what? The apparent dispute between WRI and RFF is largely semantic, of the glass-is-half-full v. half-empty kind. The RFF report actually showed that the U.S. is only “on course” if the EPA does its job of setting global warming pollution standards for power plants and several other categories of stationary sources which it had examined in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking back in July 2008. EPA has set standards for mobile sources and proposed a standard for new power plants, but stationary source standards that will have a big impact on emissions, particularly standards for existing power plants, remain a work in progress. WRI, for its part, noted that the 2020 target is achievable using existing tools if the federal government takes an ambitious “go getter” approach. WRI finds that 90 percent of the reductions needed by 2020 can come from four measures: carbon pollution standards for existing power plants; phasing out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production and distribution; and increasing energy efficiency standards for appliances and other energy-using equipment. Even if federal standards end up being “middle of the road,” WRI finds that the 2020 target could still be attained if states adopt more aggressive “go getter” policies.

How realistic is it to think we can achieve the emission reductions in WRI’s “go-getter” scenario? Here is where the BCSE/BNEF report helps, with more than one-hundred figures that paint a picture of the major changes underway in America’s energy system that have already achieved about three-quarters of the targeted reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. (Note that the WRI and RFF reports look at reducing total global warming pollution by 17 percent, which is a somewhat more challenging task, given projected growth in the non-CO2 gases which account for about 20 percent of the total). The BCSE/BNEF report highlights the recent dramatic growth in three major technologies: energy efficiency, renewables, and natural gas. (The report misleadingly labels these collectively as “sustainable” energy, when natural gas, while cleaner-burning than other fossil fuels, is by definition not sustainable). Let’s take a look at each of these technologies in turn.

Energy efficiency

The data presented in the BCSE/BNEF report show clearly that energy efficiency has been the energy policy success story of the last 30 years. Since 1970 total natural gas used in our homes has remained essentially flat while the number of households has increased by over 70% (Figure 22). In commercial buildings overall energy use per square foot has declined substantially since 1980, while electricity use per square foot has increased slightly, although not nearly as much as you would expect given the huge increase in the number of computers, printers, and servers we now stuff into our offices (Figure 91). There is still plenty of room for improvement. Most large office buildings are now Energy Star certified, but that is not the case with smaller office buildings and other types of commercial buildings, such as stores, schools, and hospitals.

Renewable energy

The promise of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, has been much discussed for decades, but that promise has only become a large scale reality in the last few years. The U.S. added 17 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity last year—a new record. Overall, non-hydro renewable electricity capacity has doubled in the last five years to almost 86 GW, which is approaching the hydro capacity of about 100 GW (Figure 8, 9). Wind remains the largest share of this capacity, but the growth in solar has been the most dramatic. Last year alone more than 3 GW of solar capacity was installed, bringing the total solar capacity up to 8 GW—a four-fold increase compared with just four years ago.

This explosive growth has been driven by key federal and state policies, but also by an equally dramatic drop in cost. The price of photovoltaic (PV) modules has dropped by more than 75 percent in the last 5 years to well below $1/Watt [Figure 35, top]. Progress has also been made in reducing balance-of-system costs, bringing total installed costs to under $2/Watt in some cases. This means that the unsubsidized levelized cost of solar electricity can be below 10 cents/kWh under favorable circumstances, and averages around 15 cents/kWh, which is less than retail electricity prices in many parts of the country.

Natural gas

The drop in natural gas prices since their peak in 2008 has been every bit as dramatic as the drop in the price of PV modules (Figure 26). Unlike with renewables (and contrary to the terminology used in the BCSE/BNEF report) this is not sustainable. The drop in gas prices was driven by a simultaneous increase in supply due to application of innovative drilling techniques, particularly hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), and a reduction in demand due to the Great Recession. Both of these factors have shifted recently as very low gas prices have reduced drilling activity and increased demand, particularly when the cost of generating electricity with natural gas at existing power plants drops below that of coal (Figure 27). As a result, after bottoming out in April 2012, natural gas prices have begun to rebound and are projected to return to more “normal” levels of $4-5 per million Btu over the next year or two.

Low natural gas prices certainly contributed to the drop in carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 as gas-fired generation replaced coal. In the absence of power plant carbon pollution standards, however, some of these reductions will be reversed as natural gas prices rebound. Meanwhile, drilling for natural gas creates a host of problems for affected communities, for public health, and for the environment. In particular, increased methane leaks from natural gas production and distribution could offset much of the climate benefits from reducing dependence on coal. Moreover, as we think beyond the 17-percent-by-2020 target to the much deeper reductions we need to make in subsequent years it becomes clear that we will need to phase out carbon dioxide emissions from all fossil fuels, including natural gas, as quickly as possible.

What all this means is that while we are not there yet, seismic shifts in our energy system due to growth in energy efficiency, renewables, and natural gas make the 2020 global warming pollution reduction target far easier to achieve than had been anticipated just a few years ago. Beyond 2020 the challenge is certainly greater, and more comprehensive policies will be needed, but recent progress, particularly in scaling up wind and solar, makes me optimistic that if we can muster the will, we can find the way to solve the climate crisis.

Dan Lashof is the director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program.

14 Responses to The 17% Cut In Carbon Pollution By 2020: Yes We Can Get There From Here

  1. Leif says:

    “The longest journey begins with a single step.”

    Please America, lets join hands and take a step.

  2. Niall says:

    I’m not about to pat the US on the back just yet.
    1) The country remains one of the highest emitters of GHGs, both absolutely and per capita.

    2) To what extent is this decline offset by imports from China, a country that, while it is increasing its use of renewables, is busily building coal-fired power stations.

    3) Nothing is being said or, I believe, done about the climate and other environmental implications of Americans eating, on average, at a very high trophic level.

    The same applies, of course, to other industrialised countries. Just because the carbon emissions are out of sight and out of mind does not change their existence.

  3. Luc Binette says:

    In my opinion, this target of 17% reduction by 2020 is a non-target if our gold is to prevent tremendous climate change. First, can’t we use 1990 as a reference year like most other countries on this planet? This would help the public to compare each other reduction plans. Second, Science is telling us that we must decarbonize our economies much before 2050. We will never get there at the level proposed for the subsequent reduction rates (2030? 2040…) Let us not entertain false expectations among the public. We need bold leaders with ambitious targets who say the truth about what is really required from us.

  4. Dale left coast says:

    Carbon Emissions?
    As the global temperature has not risen in over 16 years now . . . what’s all the excitement?
    Solar and Wind Power are Part-Time solutions . . . they always require a backup system . . . and are frightfully expensive and their life expectancy rather short.
    Was there ever a time When . . . the Climate did not Change?

  5. John McCormick says:

    go back under your rock

  6. Donald Brown says:

    Although there is some utility in explaining to the American people that the US commitment of 17% below 2005 by 2020 is achievable, it is extraordinarily irresponsible, in my view. to not shout loudly when discussion this issue that this commitment is not justifiable by any ethical or equitable theory in comparison to the scale of the problem facing the human race. Even if the US commitment were to match what the entire world needs to have any reasonable chance of preventing the 2 degree C warming that has been agreed to as a warming limit (a requirement that requires the world to reduce emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 202O most likely) and a requirement that may not be stringent enough to prevent rapid, non-linear climate responses, because the US is at the top of the world’s emissions on a per capita basis and in historical emissions, the US commitment is dangerously irresponsible and unambiguously inequitable. Therefor any discussion of the 17 percent commitment below 2005 levels, which is only 4% below 1990 emissions, must communicate to the US people how inadequate the US commitment is. This is an ethical mandate. Giving US citizens any reason to believe that the US is on track to do what is necessary of it is utterly misleading particularly given the fact that the later the world waits to peak global emissions, the more hard to imagine if not impossible emissions reductions are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.

    Donald A. Brown, Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law

  7. Niall says:

    Please check your data before commenting:

    You must have net access in your troll cave or you wouldn’t have been able to comment in the first place.

  8. Daniel Coffey says:

    Dale: Whatever they are paying you, it’s not enough. It takes a bold actor indeed to plainly assert that “bullets will not hurt me, as I have played many video games and lived to tell the tale.” Unfortunately, the video game version of global warming is not what we are playing here. It’s the real thing, the ugly thing, the thing that literally destroys worlds.

    There is no reset, no reprieve, and no amount of money which be enable you to go where the consequences of delay will leave you unaffected. Your fate is like our fate, and thus whatever you are gaining by this little slice of commentary nonsense will not be of much use to you in the future.

    It’s time for you and those like you to get serious about what is happening. It’s not a trifle and it will spare none.

  9. David Goldstein says:

    I could not agree with you more. My back of the envelope calculations come to a 35% world-wide decrease by 2020 to approach the ‘80% by 2050’. And, of course, the U.S. and other 1st tier countries would need to do more. It is overwhelmingly likely that the ‘17% by 2020’ will act as an effective red herring…that is until the extreme weather ramps up to the point that it forces deeper inquiry. When all is said and done, it seems as if the bulk of actual and effective change will be done as the direct result of increasing suffering…yes? To cadge a ‘Spinal Tap’ reference- we need to crank it up to ’11’. Right now we are at 1.5 and we are setting, let’s say, 3.5 as our goal. ’11’ isn’t even entering the discussion!

  10. David B. Benson says:

    I would also like to see a plan to plant a very large number of trees, irrigated where required.

  11. Dick Smith says:

    It doesn’t make much difference whether you use 1990 or 2005 as the base year for an 80% reduction in U.S. emissions (using IEA data).

    1990 CO2 = 5.1 GtCO2 (80% = 1.02)
    2005 CO2 = 6.1 GtCO2 (80% = 1.22)

    1990 All GHG = 6.2 GtCO2e (80% = 1.24)
    2005 All GHG = 7.2 GtCO2e (80% = 1.44)

  12. Dick Smith says:

    Your back of the envelope calculation is not consistent with my memory that one of the WRI charts showed that a 17% reduction (from 2005 to 2020) if carried at the same rate to 2050 would achieve an 83% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Too crowded with Kochstaceans.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    He’ll set his dogma on your goddam Commie data, if you’re not careful.