From: Hannah Pell

In 2005, the future emissions projections published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its annual energy outlook were bleak. Business-as-usual for the energy sector meant that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could reach up to 3,000 million tons by 2020 (this corresponds to the CO2 emissions from the electricity consumption of around 544 million households over a year).

However, where we are today is much different and for the better. In a new report, “Halfway to Zero: Progress Towards a Carbon-Free Energy Sector,” researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that the energy industry’s emissions in 2020 were 1,450 million tons – about 50% fewer than originally forecast a decade ago. With this metric, the energy sector has advanced halfway to zero emissions during this period. The researchers also found other encouraging statistics: consumer electricity bills were 18% lower, human health and climate costs were 92% and 52% lower, and the number of jobs involved in generating electricity was 29% higher.

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (2021)

What drives emissions reductions? A major factor has been the move to cleaner energy generation sources and more efficient technologies. In “Halfway to Zero” it was found that wind and sun outperformed 13 times more than expected. Nuclear power continued to produce a fifth of our total nationwide electricity generation. And the switch from coal to natural gas in the wake of the shale boom over the past decade has been instrumental in reducing both electricity costs and emissions (although natural gas has its own environmental risks, including potential drinking water pollution and methane leaks from uncovered wells). Advances in batteries and energy storage technologies have contributed to cost-effective solutions to decarbonise the energy sector, with emissions reductions accounting for the majority (53%) across the energy industry alone.

“We now have a lot more technology on the demand side and a lot more tools to do this,” said Katherine Hamilton of The Energy Gang, discussing the report’s conclusions. “We have a lot to do.”

Politics also determine our energy future. In particular, the EIA does not assume any future political changes in its forecast models for the energy outlook. They provide a “policy neutral reference case” that tends to lead to overly conservative estimates. The Halfway to Zero report is therefore a direct comparison between the emissions that could have been without political intervention, restructuring of the energy market or significant advances in energy technology. When using other benchmarks, the reductions appear more modest. The decline through 2019 was roughly 33%, meaning the United States will hit a third of its zero-emissions goal. Regardless, policies to tighten emissions regulations have significantly reduced the calculated social costs of electricity supply, including utility bills, climate damage and health impacts.

Total energy sector emissions, business as usual versus actual CO2 emissions.

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (2021).

While the news is encouraging, challenges remain to achieve net zero emissions, including adequately scaling wind, solar, and storage, as well as electrifying other industries (including transportation and manufacturing). Decarbonization in these other industries has made slower progress than in the energy sector.

“Halfway to Zero” offers two important lessons. First, emission reductions are directly dependent on politics and technological progress mutually reinforcing one another. Second, adapting to new policy and technological solutions is important as our ability to predict the future is very limited. Looking back in time to understand how we achieved these emissions reductions is essential to our ongoing goal of full decarbonization, as a clean and fair energy future is by no means guaranteed.


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