Cutting U.S. emissions to near net-zero by mid-century will require an all-in effort, with companies and consumers playing a critical role alongside the federal and state governments, a new report says.
The May 28 report from the nonpartisan Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, or C2ES, lays out three scenarios to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80% below 2005 levels by 2050. All three would require substantial investment in research and development of clean energy technologies, a broad suite of federal and state policies, and high levels of public backing.
C2ES developed the scenarios with 21 companies across sectors—including Berkshire Hathaway Energy, BHP, BP Plc, Dow Chemical Co., Duke Energy, Intel Corp., Mars Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Toyota Motor Co.
None of the companies questioned the need for the U.S. to reduce emissions 80% by 2050, Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of C2ES, told Bloomberg Environment.
“That in and of itself is very telling,” Diringer said. “The companies understand the scale and the urgency of the challenge, and they want to understand what role they and others can play in meeting it.”
Everyone ‘Pitching In’
But also telling in the report is that achieving deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would require significant commitment from all players—the federal government, state governments, companies, and consumers.
One set of players can be in the driver’s seat, but everyone has to be in the car headed toward deep decarbonization, the modeling shows.
The group of companies, led by C2ES, initially developed three scenarios, each with one set of actors—the federal government, state governments, or companies and consumers—as the dominant force of cutting emissions.
“Each of those got us only halfway to the goal,” Diringer said. “It really told us that you need all of the sectors of society pitching in.”
That means each sector has to make significant emissions cuts of its own.
Every sector has to get close to an 80% cut, and if one sector doesn’t make it all the way, others will have to pick up the slack, James Edmonds, chief scientist and Battelle fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute, said at a May 28 launch event. Edmonds helped conduct the modeling for the C2ES report and write it.
“There are no free riders in deep decarbonization,” Edmonds said.
Some companies have recently said they support an all-in approach. BP Chairman Helge Lund wrote in a May 21 op-ed in the Financial Times that the oil major, which helped develop the C2ES scenarios, believes the world must move to net-zero carbon emissions in the next few decades.
"[N]o company can do it on its own,” Lund said. “Success will require new levels of collaboration across industry, consumers and governments, aided by technology improvements and well designed government policies.”
The companies’ input also allowed more consideration of consumers’ role in cutting emissions, according to Diringer.
Consumers can drive demand for low-carbon products, pressuring the government to act, and giving companies room to embrace quicker transitions to clean products, the report finds.
On some level, companies can encourage shifts in consumer behavior or help to speed transitions along, in part by taking a broader view of how different sectors interact as they reduce emissions.
Reaching mid-century climate goals doesn’t happen just by decarbonizing the electric sector, Patricia DiOrio, vice president for strategy and technology at National Grid, said at the launch event.
“What that actually means, if you really think about it, is you have to be helping your customers change their behavior,” DiOrio added. “Because it impacts the cars we drive, how we heat our homes, how we travel, it’s pervasive. And doing it affordably is really important.”
But consumer behavior and attention to the issue of climate change is still one of the biggest uncertainties as companies do their own scenario planning for a low-carbon future, Bob Stout, vice president and head of regulatory advocacy and policy for BP America Inc., said at the event.
“We’re really trying to anticipate and, where we can, build consumer demand,” Stout said. He added that consumers can play a critical role in the marketplace, but an equally important role is pushing policies to address climate change, such as carbon pricing.
“Companies sometimes feel the onus is being put on them,” Diringer said. “The reality is that to the degree that consumers are receptive to or eager for low-carbon products, the companies can go much further.”
Diringer pointed to recent announcements that major fast food chains are introducing meatless products. For example, Burger King has introduced a meatless burger, the “Impossible Whopper,” in some locations and plans to offer the sandwich in all of its U.S. restaurants by the end of the year.
One of the C2ES scenarios, where companies and consumers lead the way, includes a 50% decrease in beef consumption.
“For many people that can be hard to imagine, but here we’re seeing major fast food chains introducing non-meat ‘meat,’” Diringer said.
That scenario also centers on a “radical transparency” around the carbon content of products, which allows consumers to factor that into their purchase decisions, Diringer said.
“It doesn’t always bear out,” he added. “But to the degree that the public becomes more aware and motivated, access to better data can facilitate low-carbon consumer choices.”
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(Updates with additional comments throughout.)