We’ve all heard the bad news. The planet is heating up at breakneck speed. Unless we reach zero net carbon emissions by 2050, we are in for a world of hurt. But Lindsey Walter, a Climate and Energy expert at the think tank Third Way, says that if you look closely at all the numbers there’s actually a lot of good news that gets buried. “Getting to zero by 2050 is a lot more affordable than people might suspect, and the benefits far outweigh the costs.” This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Listen to the full conversation here:
Matt Robison: Joe Biden wants the US to achieve 100% clean energy and reach net zero emissions by 2050. Where does that target come from?
Lindsey Walter: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the group of leading scientists in the world on climate. They issued a report saying that reaching net zero emissions globally by 2050 is what’s required in order for us to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming and avoid the worst impacts. The bad news is we’re already above one degree of warming.
Matt Robison: What would hitting this target mean for us here in the US?
Lindsey Walter: It means we have a lot of work to do. We’re the second largest emitter globally. We’re responsible for about 15% of global emissions and we only have 4.3% of the global population. So our share of emissions per person is pretty significant.
Net zero emissions by 2050 means we need to reduce emissions every single year by about 4%. That’s really hard. For example, we would have to take one in five gasoline passenger vehicles off the road in a given year.
Matt Robison: Now we’ve achieved that level of reduction before. But only in the Great Recession and the downturn caused by the global pandemic. So is the challenge to get these kinds of reductions without severe impacts to the economy?
Lindsey Walter: Yes. And that’s a real challenge. But most of communication around climate change is all about the negative. We rarely talk about the solutions. Last year, broadcast TV coverage on climate only mentioned solutions 29% of the time. But this is not all doom and gloom. There are a lot of benefits too.
Matt Robison: So is your goal to lay out the roadmap of what it will look like to get to net zero by 2050? And thereby help people see those benefits that this can work?
Lindsey Walter: That’s exactly right. We need to create a broad coalition of support for climate action. Maybe we can get some people on board with scare tactics, but that doesn’t work for everyone. So how can we bring more people to the table and have more communities see the real benefits of climate action?
Matt Robison: So when you looked at the future in a really detailed and sophisticated way, what did you find?
Lindsey Walter: We looked at seven different ways that can get us to zero by 2050. It isn’t easy. In the next 10 years, we need to be deploying clean energy infrastructure at unprecedented rates. For example, we need to build wind and solar at a rate 50% higher than we’ve ever achieved . We have to add 10 to 30 times the number of zero emission vehicles. And we’re going have to rebuild our electric grid. It took us 150 years to build today’s grid. We have to basically do it all over again in the next 15. So that’s sort of the bad news.
The good news is that there’s opportunity for every single state to play a role and to benefit. The middle of the country is actually really well positioned to develop clean energy industries. They can be the engine of this clean energy transition. The Northern and Southern Great Plains areas all the way down to the Southeast have such high quality resources that they have a lot of economic opportunity.
It’s also good news that this transition is affordable. It costs anywhere between 0.4 to 2.2% of GDP spent on our energy system. But historically, we have spent 5-10% of GDP on our energy.
Another piece of good news is that every single one of our scenarios uses natural gas. So we don’t have to get stuck on all-or-nothing political tradeoffs. Oil and gas producing states can play a role in this future both by producing new, renewable electricity resources and also through their natural gas industries.
Matt Robison: What does the US need to do to make this future a reality?
Lindsey Walter: We’re going to need a combination of what we call push and pull policies. Some that are incentivizing clean energy and investing in innovation. But also standards that require improvements in different sectors of the economy. It’s the combination of these policies that work well together and get us on the path.
But the bottom line is that getting to zero by 2050 is a lot more affordable than people might suspect, and the economic benefits far outweigh the costs.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.