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The Lowdown Hub

Biden wants the U.S. to stop contributing to climate change by 2050. Here’s what that would actually

Putting the country on a path toward ‘net zero’ emissions would mean massive and rapid changes, from your kitchen to your carport


Joe Biden tours the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative site in Plymouth, N.H.

The year is 2050, and everything in your home — perhaps in your entire life — is electric. Your car runs on battery power. Your home heating runs through a highly efficient heat-pump system that has long since replaced the gas furnace. Not even the burners on your stove produce combustion or flames any longer. And all of it is powered by an array of solar and sometimes distant wind installations, which route electricity across the country thanks to a gargantuan network of power lines that triples the scale of the United States’ current transmission infrastructure. You see them — the panels, the turbines, the lines — everywhere you drive, everywhere you go. By 2050, in President-elect Joe Biden’s vision of the country — even more, ambitious than what the Obama administration proposed — the United States would no longer be putting greenhouse gases into the air. And for that to happen, it is likely that our world would have to look a lot like what was just described. That is the gist of what an extremely detailed study from energy experts at Princeton University describes in 344 exacting slides outlining what it would take for the United States to be “net-zero” in 30 years — meaning any remaining greenhouse gas emissions would be offset by subtractions through forests, agriculture or perhaps directly sucking carbon from the air. “The costs are affordable, the tool kit is there, but the scale of transformation across the country is significant,” said Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton professor and one of three leaders of the study, along with the university’s Eric Larson and Christopher Greig. “This is a major national undertaking that will only happen if we have the right national commitment.” It may sound pretty radical, but around the world, countries are pledging just this. They will have net-zero emissions three decades from now, they say. There is just no other way to finally get climate change under control. Once you lay it all out there, as the Princeton scholars do, it is a combination of things that seem completely doable and things that seem utterly alien. The cost, for instance, comes in reasonably low, considering the scale of the economy and what the United States already spends on energy: $2.5 trillion invested in the 2020s, for instance, and a substantial number of new jobs get created. But it would still require a massive technological phase shift and an utterly remade country. In the next 10 years alone, the report says, we would need to add 50 million electric vehicles, quadruple the size of wind and solar in the United States, and expand the transmission infrastructure by 60 percent. It would certainly take a concerted effort — and legislation that, right now, it is hard to imagine Congress signing onto. “If you took it as a given that you were going to get to net-zero by 2050, this is the full onboard, all-hands-on-deck kind of thing that you would need to do,” said Susan Tierney, a senior adviser at the Analysis Group and an energy expert who advised on the report. “And it’s overwhelming.” The Princeton team used detailed energy-system modeling, with five separate scenarios, to figure out how the United States could cease to emit any net amount of greenhouse gases by 2050. The details vary. For instance, most scenarios still use some nuclear power and some fossil fuels, but with carbon capture to remove their emissions. But a 100 percent renewable-energy scenario, somewhat more costly to achieve because of its deliberately constrained options, rules even this out. More notable, though, is what is the same in the scenarios. Basically, everything that can be made electric — but especia