The White House Wednesday unleashed a detailed 111-page document outlining a “mid century strategy” to massively slash U.S. carbon emissions by the year 2050, reducing them 80 percent “or more” below their 2005 levels. Just to give some sense of scale, the long-term impact of the plan would be larger than the effect of instantly taking all cars off U.S. roads.
The breathtaking “deep decarbonization” document, timed for the ongoing Marrakech, Morocco climate meetings, is meant to build upon the U.S.’s existing pledge to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, which represents the country’s commitment under the newly operative Paris climate agreement. But it comes at a time when a burst of doubt has been thrust into this entire process by the election of Donald Trump, who has pledged to “cancel” the Paris deal, expand carbon intensive coal burning, and who does not accept the underlying science of climate change.
Even as the report was released, Secretary of State John Kerry, freshly back from a trip to Antarctica to survey the ravages of climate change firsthand, spoke at the Marrakesh meeting. There, he told nervous negotiators that “no one should doubt the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the United States who know climate change is happening, and who are determined to keep our commitments that were made in Paris.”
The new report, which the White House had committed to releasing back in March and which appears to have been in motion for some time, states that the U.S. “can meet the growing demands on its energy system and lands while achieving a low-emissions pathway, maintaining a thriving economy, and ensuring a just transition for Americans whose livelihoods are connected to fossil fuel production and use.”
The document outlines a suite of strategies to reduce emissions, including the potential adoption of futuristic technologies.
Not only must the U.S. cease “nearly all fossil fuel electricity production,” electrify vehicles, and phase down other greenhouse gases – methane from oil and gas and agriculture, nitrous oxide from agricultural operations and other sources, hydroflurocarbons from refrigerants-it must expand the areas of the country covered by forests by 40 to 50 million acres.
On top of that, the document also speaks of potentially implementing a technology called “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage,” or BECCS, which would actively subtract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It would do so through a process that combines together burning trees or plants for energy, storing the carbon released in the ground, and then growing more plants and pulling more carbon from the air.
BECCS is controversial, however, not only because the technology does not exist at a large scale, but also because it could require enormous amounts of land in order to grow and regrow the required plants or trees. The White House document both holds the technology out as a possibility but also says that 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gases are available without a reliance on it.
If the U.S. were to achieve this 2050 goal, then we would move from emitting some 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents each year down to well below 2 billion tons. Eventually, emissions in all countries will have to decline to zero in order to meet long range climate goals.
But the entire edifice appears to builds upon the U.S.’s more near term goal of 26 to 28 percent reductions by 2025, which in turn relies on Obama policies, like the Clean Power Plan. That’s a policy that Trump has pledged to reverse.