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.
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:
In addition, this report calls for implementing a set of key sector-specific policies, including:
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.
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Electrical Energy Storage
Electricity Generation and Transmission
Carbon Capture and Sequestration
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.
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).