The target is to reduce global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050
Practically speaking, there is only one way to achieve that in the timescale required:
1. Declare that the fossil fuel age is over
We cannot avert a climate catastrophe without putting an end to the burning of fossil fuels. Greenhouse gas emissions will continue to be produced from certain industrial processes, from agricultural practices, deforestation and other human activity. These continuing emissions can be balanced with tree plantings and other forms of carbon sequestration in order to achieve “net-zero” emissions. But there is no way to reach net-zero without a complete end to burning fossil fuels.
That means immediately ending all government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, divesting pension and other government funds from fossil fuels, cancelling all new licensing of fossil fuel plants, and banning all future gas and oil drilling, fracking, exploration and pipeline construction.
It means putting pressure on every state and local government, school board, and police department to begin taking the necessary steps. And it means calling on the private sector, especially schools and colleges, hospitals, businesses and other large institutions, to follow suit.
The President must declare with absolute clarity and conviction that we are going to stop all burning of fossil fuels and move to a post-fossil fuel, renewable energy economy.
2. Fossil-free electricity by 2030
Electricity generation is currently the second biggest source of greenhouse gases in the US, accounting for over 1.7 billion tons of carbon emissions per year. As we transition to electric cars and electric heating, we will need to be producing even more electricity. It must therefore be our number one priority to move as swiftly as possible to 100% renewable electricity.
This means producing a timetable for closing all remaining coal and gas-fired power stations and replacing them with on-shore and off-shore wind farms, solar PV farms and hydro-electricity by 2030 at the latest.
It means providing government subsidies and other incentives to put rooftop solar panels on houses, public and commercial buildings, parking lots, vacant brownfield sites, and anywhere else they can be located. It means providing government subsidies and other incentives to put up small and micro-scale wind turbines on farms, and on the grounds of schools, colleges, hospitals and other suitable locations.
It means investing heavily in a national electricity “smart grid” as well as regional and micro-grids that can distribute electricity much more efficiently from where it is produced to where it is needed in real time. It means investing heavily in further research and development of large-scale battery and other technologies for storage of electricity, including the use of EV car batteries to store electricity for use in powering our homes when not being used for transportation.
The next President must work with Congress to provide the funding necessary to ensure the US moves as swiftly as possible to achieve 100% renewable electricity no later than 2030.
3. Selling only all-electric vehicles by 2030
Transportation is currently the number one source of greenhouse gases in the US, with over 1.8 billion tons of carbon emitted annually. Over 1 billion tons of this comes from nearly 250 million cars, SUVs, pick-up trucks and mini-vans on our roads at the moment. Another 436 million tons of carbon is emitted each year from 12 million medium and large-sized trucks. Air travel accounts for another 200 million tons of carbon per year (including international air travel, which is not included in official US carbon emission figures).
Flying is, without a doubt, a carbon-intensive activity compared to other activities any one individual may take part in. However, when looking at the overall picture, cars are putting nearly five times as much carbon into the atmosphere as planes. It must be an absolute top priority to move our transportation system away from gasoline and diesel powered cars and trucks and onto fully electric vehicles (BEVs) powered by renewable electricity.
This means banning the sale of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles in this country by 2030 and getting all of those cars off the road by 2050. It means providing subsidies and incentives to help people make the transition to an EV, including buy-back schemes to get people to give up their existing gasoline vehicles. It means regulations and significant investment to help car manufacturers make the transition and ensure that all car imports are fully EV by 2030. And it means government investment in a national network of fast EV charging stations.
The next President must work with Congress to provide the funding necessary to ensure the US moves as swiftly as possible to battery electric vehicles, with a ban on the sale of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles by 2030.
4. Phase out all HFCs by 2030
After transportation and electricity, the third largest emitter of carbon in the US is the industrial sector, responsible for 1.4 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year. Most of this comes from industrial processes that will take time, money and a lot more research to be converted to greener alternatives. But to meet the 2030 target of cutting all emissions roughly in half, there is one major source of emissions that can, and must, be stopped. That is the leakage of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases, mostly from refrigeration and air conditioning, that accounts for as much as 150 million tons of carbon-equivalent per year.
HFCs are widely used to replace ozone-depleting gases that have been banned. They are currently used in electric heat pumps, which will be increasingly needed to replace gas boilers for heat and hot water in buildings. It is therefore important to tackle HFCs now, rather than further down the road when the problem will be much worse.
The European Union and many other countries around the world have already started to phase out HFCs under the terms of the so-called Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on banned gases. The US has not yet signed this agreement and continues to produce and use HFCs without restriction.
The US must sign, ratify and implement the Kigali Amendment to phase out HFCs, and negotiate a much faster timetable to eliminate all HFCs by 2030.
5. All new building construction to be fossil-free by 2025
Heating of residential and commercial buildings with oil and gas accounts for about 750 million tons of carbon emissions per year in the US. It will take many years to convert and retrofit millions of existing buildings to use alternative non-fossil fuel sources for heat, hot water and cooking. It is essential, however, to start this process as soon as possible.
The first step to removing the carbon emissions from buildings is to require all new buildings to be constructed so as to meet strict fossil-free requirements. Energy efficiency standards are no longer sufficient to save the planet. All new buildings must be required as soon as possible to be built with the appropriate electric heating and cooking technologies, which for most parts of the country will be mini-split heat pumps and for the coldest areas, ground-source heat pumps and other technologies.
The government must require all new residential and commercial buildings to be heated with electric heat pump technology by 2025 at the latest, and begin the process of converting all existing buildings from gas to electricity for heating and cooking – which must be accomplished by 2050.
6. Plant 10 billion trees by 2030
Even with 100% of our electricity from renewable sources, 100% electric vehicles on the road and 100% of our buildings heated with electricity, there will still be considerable carbon emissions coming from industrial processes like the production of cement, from agriculture and cattle management, from air travel, and other sources. We need to invest heavily in research and development to cut down emissions in all these areas, but to achieve “net-zero” emissions by 2050, we also need to increase our carbon absorption capacity to balance the carbon emissions that have not yet been eliminated.
While many people advocate development of large-scale, high-tech “carbon capture and storage” systems to pull carbon back out of the atmosphere, the most effective method for doing this, by far, is to plant trees and restore wetlands and soils that already have a natural capacity to absorb carbon.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted more than 3 billion trees across the United States. We can increase the carbon absorption capacity of this country by almost 50% by planting 30 billion trees over the next 30 years, or roughly 1 billion trees per year.
We must immediately fund the planting of 1 billion trees per year, to reach a target of 10 billion trees by 2030 and 30 billion by 2050.
7. Re-negotiate the Paris Agreement
The US acting alone cannot stop climate change. We should re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, certainly. But that agreement is no longer sufficient to prevent a global climate catastrophe. The non-binding “nationally determined contributions” agreed in 2015 aim to keep global warming to 2° C. But we now know that to prevent a climate catastrophe we need to keep global warming to no more than 1.5° C. That means much stricter commitments are needed.
The US must work with the rest of the world, and especially with the other major carbon emitters, China, India, Russia and the EU, to achieve stronger, binding targets that will keep the earth to 1.5° C of warming instead of 2° C. The US must also use its influence and provide financial assistance to help ensure other countries meet these targets.
The new President should work closely with the rest of the world to agree and implement a new treaty that will reduce global emissions by 45% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.