Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System

The world is transforming its energy system from one dominated by fossil fuel combustion to one with net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary anthropogenic greenhouse gas.  This energy transition is critical to mitigating climate change, protecting human health, and revitalizing the U.S. economy. To help policymakers, businesses, communities, and the public better understand what a net-zero transition would mean for the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine convened a committee of experts to investigate how the U.S. could best decarbonize its transportation, electricity, buildings, and industrial sectors.

This report, Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System, identifies key technological and socio-economic goals that must be achieved to put the United States on the path to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.  The report presents a policy blueprint outlining critical near-term actions for the first decade (2021-2030) of this 30-year effort, including ways to support communities that will be most impacted by the transition.

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In order to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, the United States must begin taking action now to accomplish five main technology goals.  Meeting these objectives over the current decade (2021-2030) will be essential to making the net-zero transition possible on a 30-year timeframe, so that long-lived energy infrastructure can be replaced with zero-carbon alternatives.
Produce carbon-free electricity
The nation needs to double the share of electricity generated by non-carbon-emitting sources to at least 75% by 2030. This will require record-setting deployment of solar and wind technologies, scaling back coal and some gas-fired power plants, and preserving operating nuclear plants and hydroelectric facilities where possible.
Electrify energy services in transportation, buildings, and industry
By 2030, the nation should aim for 50% of new vehicle sales across all classes to be zero-emission vehicles. The U.S. should replace 20% or more of fossil fuel furnaces with electric heat pumps in buildings and initiate policies so that new construction is all electric except in the coldest climate zones. Where industrial processes cannot be fully electrified, they should begin the transition to low-carbon heat sources.
Invest in energy efficiency and productivity
By 2030, total energy use by new buildings should be reduced by 50%. In existing buildings, energy used for space conditioning and plug-in devices should be lowered every year to achieve a 30% reduction by 2030. Goals for industrial energy productivity (dollars of economic output per energy consumed) should increase each year.
Plan, permit, and build critical infrastructure
By 2030, the nation should increase overall electrical transmission capacity by approximately 40% in order to better distribute high quality and low-cost wind and solar power from where it is generated to where it can be used across the country. The nation should also accelerate the build-out of the electric vehicle recharging network and initiate a national CO2 capture, transport, and disposal network to ensure that CO2 can be removed from point sources across the country.
Expand the innovation toolkit
The nation should triple federal investment in clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) in order to provide new technology options, reduce costs for existing options, and better understand how to manage a socially-just energy transition.


A complete transformation of the energy system will affect most aspects of life in the United States, with impacts far beyond the deployment of new technologies. A net-zero emissions economy would combine the nation’s impressive energy resources and culture of innovation to ameliorate ongoing social injustices in today’s energy system and fairly distribute both opportunities and costs. Studies estimate that the transition could increase net employment by one to two million jobs over the next decade and revitalize multiple U.S. economic sectors. Policies to enable the transition to net-zero emissions should be designed to advance four critical socio-economic goals to ensure an equitable transition.
Strengthen the U.S. economy
Global demand for clean energy and climate mitigation solutions will reach trillions of dollars over the coming decades. The transition to a net-zero emissions economy provides an opportunity to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, construction, and commercial sectors, while providing a net increase in jobs paying higher wages than the national average.
Promote equity and inclusion
U.S. policies should promote equitable access to the benefits of clean energy systems, including reliable and affordable energy, new training and employment opportunities, and opportunities for wealth creation. Policies that facilitate the transition to a net-zero emissions economy should also work to eliminate inequities in the current energy system that disadvantage historically marginalized and low-income populations.
Support communities, businesses, and workers
Any fundamental technological and economic transition creates new opportunities as well as job losses and other associated impacts in legacy industries. There is a need to identify and mitigate impacts on labor sectors and communities negatively impacted by the transition of the U.S. economy to net-zero emissions. U.S. policies should promote fair access to new long-term employment opportunities and provide financial and other support to communities that might otherwise be harmed by the transition.
Maximize cost-effectiveness
A cost-effective strategy (balanced by equity considerations) will reduce carbon emissions, strengthen the U.S. economy, and avoid undue burdens on American households and businesses during the transition to a net-zero emissions economy. If the country can avoid spending more than necessary to achieve net-zero emissions, additional resources will be available to meet other societal needs.

Key Policies to Support Decarbonization in the United States

The report recommends a series of policy changes to support the net-zero transition in the United States.  In particular, it calls for implementing a set of key system-wide policies aimed at addressing both technology and equity goals, including:

  • Setting an official emissions budget for the United States for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to support the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050
  • An economy-wide price on carbon, in addition to other policies focusing on particular sectors
  • A new National Transition Task Force to evaluate how best to support labor sectors and communities that will be affected by the energy transition
  • A new Office of Equitable Energy Transitions within the White House to establish criteria, measure, and report back on net-zero transition impacts and equity considerations
  • A new independent National Transition Corporation to provide support and opportunities for displaced workers and affected communities
  • A new Green Bank, initially capitalized at $30 billion, to ensure the required capital is available for the net-zero transition and to mobilize greater private investment
  • A comprehensive education and training initiative to develop the workforce required for the net-zero transition, to fuel future innovation, and to provide new high-quality jobs
  • Triple federal investment in clean energy RD&D at the Department of Energy over the next ten years as well as the support for social science research on the socio-economic aspects of advancing the transition

In addition, this report calls for implementing a set of key sector-specific policies, including:

  • Setting a clean energy standard for electricity generation designed to reach 75% clean electricity by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050
  • Congressional and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) actions to advance clean electricity markets and improve their regulation, design, and operation
  • National zero-emissions vehicle standards for light, medium, and heavy-duty vehicles, including stronger Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards
  • Manufacturing standards for zero-emissions appliances by 2050 while continuing to establish appliance minimum efficiency standards
  • Recipients of federal funds and their contractors required to meet labor standards, and Buy America/Buy American provisions for federally-funded activities should be enforced

View a complete interactive list of the report’s policy recommendations, here.

Lessons Learned

The study committee came to its conclusions after extensively reviewing previous studies on the implications and costs of various possible decarbonization pathways. Click through their lessons learned below.

Strategies for Decarbonization by Sector

Transforming the energy system from one dominated by fossil fuel combustion to one with net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases will require changes across many economic sectors including buildings, transportation, and industry. Low-cost and reliable clean electricity can become the cornerstone of a net-zero emissions economy as fuel for electric vehicles, efficient heat pumps, and a source of heat and clean hydrogen for industrial processes. Substantial improvements in energy efficiency are achievable across all sectors and can help to meet future demands for energy services in a cost-effective manner. Although technology exists to decarbonize all parts of the energy system, some technologies remain at precommercial or first-of-a-kind demonstration stages and will require significant improvement in cost and performance to become commercially viable.

To put the United States on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050, roughly $2.0 trillion in incremental capital investment needs to be mobilized over the next decade to meet the five technology goals identified in this report. However, this increase in capital costs will be largely offset by lower operating expenses due to lower fuel costs and increased efficiency. Taking into account the extensive savings from new technology deployment, estimates of the net cost for the energy transition during the 2020s are on the order of $100-300 billion rather than trillions of dollars.

Click on a strategy to learn more.

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Electrical Energy Storage

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Electricity Generation and Transmission

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Carbon Capture and Sequestration

About the Report

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the largest driver of climate change, and it is the greenhouse gas most integrated into the U.S. economy and way of life. The study committee was asked to recommend research and policy needs to support decarbonization in the United States, including technological, policy, and societal factors. This report focuses on actions required during the 2020s to reduce CO2 emissions from the U.S. energy system (including in the electricity, transportation, industrial, and buildings sectors) to put the United States on a trajectory to achieve net zero emissions by midcentury. Most importantly, this report provides a manual for the near-term federal policies needed to build a non-emitting energy system that will strengthen the U.S. economy, promote equity and inclusion, and support communities, businesses, and workers.

The committee is made up of experts from a variety of backgrounds in energy technologies, economics, social sciences, physical sciences, and policy analysis.   The National Academies take careful steps to convene diverse committees that have an appropriate range of expertise and represent a balance of perspectives.  See the complete list of committee members and read their bios on the study webpage

The committee was asked to identify the highest-priority actions that the nation should undertake to achieve decarbonization, including technological, socio-economic, and policy dimensions.  The committee members identified actions required in the 2020s to put the nation on a flexible and sustainable path to decarbonization as well as societal goals for the transition.  The committee was not asked to make a determination about whether the nation should pursue decarbonization.  Read the committee’s full statement of task on the study webpage.

The study committee developed the findings and recommendations in this report after extensively reviewing and discussing the literature on decarbonization pathways and the technical, socio-economic, and policy options for U.S. decarbonization.  Each committee member relied upon and shared his or her unique expertise to reach consensus across diverse perspectives.  This report, like all National Academies’ consensus reports, underwent a rigorous external peer-review process prior to publication.

Net-zero emissions policy requires more than just identifying and implementing non-emitting energy technologies because of the need to address a host of other issues that people care deeply about. The net-zero transition represents an opportunity to build a more competitive U.S. economy, to increase the availability of high-quality jobs, to build an energy system without the social injustices that permeate our current system, and to allow those that are marginalized today to share equitability in future benefits. To maintain public support through a thirty-year transition, the U.S. will also need specific policies to ensure a fair distribution of both costs and benefits.

This report focuses on addressing CO2 emissions from many sectors, including fuel and electricity use related to agriculture.  However, reducing non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions (such as methane) from agricultural land use and processes remains a challenge for mitigating climate change.  Read a brief discussion on this topic from the report here.  More information is also available on this topic from the National Academies’ 2019 report Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda.

This study was sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, Quadrivium Foundation, Gates Ventures, ClearPath Foundation, and Incite Labs, with support from the National Academy of Sciences Thomas Lincoln Casey Fund, the National Academy of Sciences Arthur L. Day Fund, and the National Academy of Sciences Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fund.

The recommendations in this report will be shared with federal and state policymakers, industry leaders, philanthropic organizations, non-governmental entities, researchers, and the public. These groups, including the U.S. Congress and the executive branch, will be briefed on the key messages of the report.

Learn more about the study and sign up for email updates on the study webpage. The study committee and the National Academies will be hosting virtual public events in the future to further explore these topics, leading up to the publication of a second report in 2022. The second report will focus on longer-term actions needed for decarbonization out through 2050. It will also address other emitting sectors (e.g., agriculture and land use) and non-CO2 greenhouse gases (such as methane).

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