January 6, 2021

PU Study on Paths to Zero Emissions Gains Attention in Biden Administration

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton University’s recent Net-Zero America study lays out in detail what the Biden-Harris administration must do to meet its pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In the three weeks since its release, the study has stirred up interest among decision makers in government and industry.

President-elect Joe Biden, along with many state and business leaders, has endorsed the goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in seeking to avoid the worst effects of climate change.   

A two-year effort led by 18 different researchers, 10 from Princeton University, the study, “Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts,” has immediate and practical implications. Project leaders have briefings scheduled this month on Capitol Hill, with the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, with U.S Senator Cory Booker’s staff, and with Gina McCarthy, former Environmental Protection Agency leader in the Obama administration and Biden’s nominee to head the new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.

A December 29 New York Times editorial noted, “What the Princeton study envisions is great amounts of new public and private investment, bigger by far than the modest energy-related tax breaks in the year-end spending and coronavirus relief package.”

In a January 4 phone interview Eric Larson, a lead researcher of the study and senior research engineer at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, commented on the study and its impact so far. 

“It was a great team effort to put it together,” he said. “I hope that it’s useful both for people making public policy and also private investment decisions. A lot of companies have declared that they’re going to be net zero as well. Hopefully this provides guidance for many different stakeholders.”

Larson, who also leads the Andlinger Center’s Energy Systems Analysis Group and was on the steering committee for the Princeton municipal Climate Action Plan which calls for 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2010 levels by 2050, described the unusual nature of the Net-Zero America study. “There have been other good studies that have been done, but what distinguishes this study is that we’ve gone down to a level of granularity, both time-wise and geographically, that helps to drive home what’s involved in this transition if we’re going to get to net zero by 2050.”

He noted the flexibility of the plan that includes five different possible pathways to reach the goal. “We paint several different quite diverse pictures of pathways that get to net zero so there’s not one answer, not one-size-fits-all,” he said. “There are different options, and depending on what we do today, we may or may not set ourselves on course for other options.”

The 345-page Net-Zero America study provides extraordinary detail on possible costs, changes in employment, implications for existing industries, impacts on air pollution and public health, and what needs to be built.

In his foreword to the study, John P. Holdren, Harvard professor and former presidential science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote that Net-Zero America “sets an entirely new standard in this genre.” He continued, “Everybody seriously interested in the crucial question of this country’s energy-climate future — not least the new Biden-Harris administration — needs to understand the findings of this extraordinary study.”

The Princeton researchers agreed that whatever pathway the nation follows, immediate change is crucial, with major financial investment, a shift from existing systems and rapid building of new clean infrastructure.

“We now have a good body of evidence that shows, ‘yes, it’s affordable.’ We can do it,” said Larson in a Princeton University press release. “And, of course, there are significant costs of not doing anything. Climate science has shown that unchecked warming will harm communities here in America and all over the world from changes in disease pattern to the displacement of millions of people from sea level rise and flooding from more intense storms.”

For the country to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is affordable and feasible, the study finds, and there are different ways to get there depending on decisions made concerning economic, social, and human trade-offs.

“There’s a lot of work still to be done,” said Larson. “We just painted an initial picture and laid out a bit of a blueprint, but there’s a lot more work that has to be done to flush things out. To the extent that this study is useful to the Biden administration and others, that’s great, but the work is not done by any means.”

Though emphasizing the need for immediate action, Larson noted, “I don’t pretend to have any wisdom about which direction we’ll end up going.” The Princeton research team will be putting up a website in the next month, giving people the opportunity to take advantage of the detailed data and analysis. 

“It will let you drill down into our results on a state-by-state basis, so if you’re in Montana or Iowa and you’re interested in the implications of our work for your state you can go in and look at the numbers and use them in a way that helps you think about your own state’s policies,” he said.

Among the study’s recommendations are calls for large increases in the use of wind and solar power; significant expansion of the country’s electric grid; increased electrification of buildings with electric heat pumps replacing the use of natural gas or oil; and battery-powered electric vehicles taking over the market for new cars.

The researchers called for further rapid development of new technologies such as natural gas or cement plants that capture carbon or those that split water to produce hydrogen.

Net zero would mean eliminating use of coal and sharply reducing the use of oil and gas. Workers would be displaced, but millions of new green jobs, retrofitting homes, building wind farms and more, would arise. 

Looking forward to discussing the researchers’ findings at upcoming briefings in Washington, Larson reflected, “It is very encouraging just to have people who care about the climate coming into the government. The idea is to let the work speak for itself and to let people take away from it what they’re interested in.”