Fix the Climate Problem? Easy. Cut U.S. Emissions to 1901 Levels

United States in 1901
State Street in Columbus, Ohio, 1901. Photographer: Corbis

A draft report prepared for the United Nations suggests, out loud, what the U.S. needs to do about climate change: Cut emissions to one-tenth of current levels, per person, in less than 40 years.

It’s perilous to say these things in the U.S., where a mere description of the scale of the climate challenge too often invites ridicule and dismissiveness. Americans are each responsible for about 18 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Taking that down 90 percent would mean a drop in emissions to what they were in about 1901 or 1902. Cue ridicule and dismissiveness.

Making fun, even when it’s so easy, is a shortsighted response.

The report, Pathways to Deep Decarbonization, describes how nations might be able mitigate against dangerous climate change. Two organizations wrote it to provide national leaders and UN agencies with a specific vision of how 15 leading economies can slash climate pollution.

The study contains detailed sections on each of a dozen large national emitters, including the U.S., China, Russia and the U.K. It suggests to national leaders that cutting carbon may be possible, without economic compromise and without fear that they’ll have to go it alone. Such analysis might help them generate the political support they’ll need to make the UN climate negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015 successful.

So the good news, according to the two organizations that wrote the report, is that cutting U.S. emissions 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 is “technically feasible.” That’s a drop of more than 5.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2010 to 746 megatons in 2050, according to the study.

To describe what that would look like, the authors break the energy system into two views, “primary energy” and “final energy.”

Primary energy includes fuels as they’re taken out of nature, before humans do anything with them: coal, oil, natural gas, renewables, nuclear and biomass. In the authors’ main scenario, petroleum drops from 39 percent of primary energy in 2010, to just 6 percent in 2050. Fossil fuels as a group decline from 92 percent of primary energy to about 47 percent, as energy efficiency, nuclear power and renewables increase.

Final energy is what consumers or industry use, once the original sources have been refined or otherwise converted somehow from their original state: electricity, liquid fuels or distributed gas, for example. In the authors’ main scenario, liquids drop from 46 percent of final energy to just 9 percent. Electricity jumps from 20 percent to 51 percent, on a proliferation of electric cars.

Energy Pathways
Source: SDSN/IDDRI via United Nations

There’s no question that there are still “technically feasible” pathways to a low-carbon economy. The bad news is that, without political buy-in, exploring technical feasibility is basically a parlor game. And political buy-in isn’t going to come about in the U.S. through reports suggesting that Americans should reduce their emissions to a tenth.

Elected officials can use studies like this to generate support for clean-energy policies. But in some places, like the U.S., the same studies can hinder policy development. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.

Talking about cutting emissions back to 1901 levels should strike many as crazytalk. It would be nice if it were crazytalk. Instead, it’s a worthwhile description of the challenge at hand.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter)

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