A new action plan shows how we can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050

That starts with national policy to move the country deliberately, and without delay, toward a cleaner, more sustainable future. The sooner American climate and clean energy leadership gets back on track, the better―for our nation and for the world.

That starts with national policy to move the country deliberately, and without delay, toward a cleaner, more sustainable future. The sooner American climate and clean energy leadership gets back on track, the better―for our nation and for the world. (Photo: Michael N/Pacific/BarcroftImages)

Two years ago in Paris, the United States, China, and more than 190 other countries agreed to protect our people and our planet from the growing dangers of global climate change, the very dangers we’re seeing now, right before our eyes.

We’re seeing the consequences in storms, floodwaters, and rising seas in Houston, Tampa, and the Florida Keys. In wildfires destroying forests and choking the skies with smoke and ash in Seattle, Portland, and Salt Lake City. In croplands turning to desert in ChinaKenya, and parts of Kansas; in the worst mass extinctions in 60 million years; and in vast ocean reefs perishing in waters too warm for coral to survive.

All this and more gets worse—much worse—unless we cut the dangerous fossil fuelpollution that’s driving us toward climate catastrophe. In the United States and across the developed world, that means cutting carbon dioxide emissions and other dangerous greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050, relative to 1990 levels.

The science is definitive. The mission is clear. And the consequences of failure are unthinkable. The question has been, how do we get there?

At last we have the answer, in what we believe to be the most authoritative and actionable road map yet to the kind of future our children deserveAmerica’s Clean Energy Frontier: The Pathway to a Safer Climate Future, a new NRDC report that pulls together decades of peer-reviewed study and analysis, turns an aspiration into an action plan. It shows how we can cut greenhouse gas pollution at least 80 percent by 2050.

We can do it in a way that creates jobs, cuts energy costs, makes our companies more competitive, and pays $7 in public benefits for every $1 invested in clean energy progress. And we can do it using proven technology that’s already in use, already working.

The key is to cut our coal, gas, and oil consumption at least 70 percent by investing in energy efficiency, so we do more with less waste in our workplaces and homes; shifting to electric cars and trains while boosting the fuel efficiency of the rest of our vehicles; and getting more clean electricity from the wind and sun.

To do this requires us to modernize the aging and outdated electricity grid; update the regulations and markets that control that system; and upgrade it to manage wind and solar power production from our homes, workplaces, ranches, and farms.

This is not a pipe dream—it’s a vision. It builds on real progress we’re already making.

Since 1970, we’ve cut our energy use in this country about 60 percent as a share of our economic output by investing in energy efficiency. We need to accelerate those gains. Right now, nationally, wind turbines and solar panels provide 8 percent of our electricity. By 2050, we can raise that to 70 percent. Let’s go get that power.

We’ve begun to build in this country some of the best all-electric and hybrid cars in the world. By 2050, electricity can power 85 percent of our new cars, helping us attain an average fleet fuel-efficiency level equal to 100 miles per gallon.

There are already some three million Americans working to help us shift away from the dirty fuels driving climate change and toward cleaner, smarter ways to power our future.

With policies to promote this epic shift, we can create hundreds of thousands more well-paying jobs. We can prepare our workers for success in the booming global clean energy market, projected to attract $7 trillion in investment over the next 25 years. And we can strike a blow against the central environmental challenge of our time, the global climate change that threatens our people and imperils our future.

We already know what we’ll hear from the naysayers, the fossil fuel industry and its political allies. President Trump and his fellow Republicans in Congress, after all, want to walk us away from the promise of Paris, retreat from the clean energy and climate progress we’re making at home and abroad, cede the economic play of our lifetime to our rivals overseas, and leave our kids to pay the price.

Even now.

That’s not what the American people want, and it’s not what the times demand. We all know where we need to go. Now solid analysis shows us how to get there.

With or without help from Washington, thousands of state, local, university, and business leaders will press ahead with the progress we need. Ultimately, though, as our new analysis makes clear, this is a global challenge. It requires global solutions. As the world’s second-largest emitter of dangerous greenhouse gases, the United States must play a central role.

That starts with national policy to move the country deliberately, and without delay, toward a cleaner, more sustainable future. The sooner American climate and clean energy leadership gets back on track, the better―for our nation and for the world.

Rhea Suh is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

NRDC’s 80 percent by 2050 approach relied on four key emission reduction strategies, though the first three strategies take us 90 percent of the way:

  • We cut energy use by almost half through more ambitious investments in efficient and/or electric vehicles, appliance, buildings, and industrial plants. If we use less energy to begin with, we will automatically shrink the need for fossil fuels to heat our homes or power our gadgets. Less use of fossil fuels means less harmful and climate-changing pollution. Waste less, use less, pollute less!
  • We dramatically expand renewable energy so that wind and solar power represent at least 70 percent of our electricity mix by 2050—renewable energy, as a whole, will account for at least 80 percent.
  • We use this near-zero-carbon electricity to displace direct use of fossil fuels. Think electric vehicles that charge overnight using wind power or electric heat pumps instead of natural gas heating in our homes.
  • For those stubborn, remaining uses that are currently hard to replace with electricity (e.g., airplanes, trucks, and steel manufacturing), we move to lower-carbon fuels such as clean biofuels produced from sustainable biomass.

To support this diversified, decarbonized energy supply, we have to build a stronger, modernized electricity grid that can better support renewable energy resources and energy efficiency. These investments in our energy infrastructure can also make our grid more resilient to extreme weather.

We don’t need to wait for breakthroughs. We have all the tools we need, but we must act now. What we propose here is nothing less than a revolution, but since when have Americans shied away from a revolution?

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