Skip to main content

Ask a Scientist: How To Avoid Climate Disaster

The Inflation Reduction Act's $400B investment in clean energy will make a significant dent in emissions, but not enough to meet US carbon reduction goals. A Union of Concerned Scientists team showed how to lower emission by 50 percent by 2030.

Improving Efficiency of Solar Panels @ Google, by Avinash Kaushik (CC BY 2.0)

Last year, Congress passed the most ambitious climate bill ever enacted, the Inflation Reduction Act. The legislation committed nearly $400 billion to support, among other things, wind and solar power, battery storage, electric vehicles, and other clean energy technologies that will make a significant dent in US heat-trapping emissions. However, several analyses—including a recent one by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—have concluded that the IRA, even when coupled with the bipartisan infrastructure act and other federal and state climate policies, will not be enough to meet US carbon emission reduction goals.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the United States voluntarily pledged to reduce its global warming emissions at least 50 percent below their 2005 levels by the end of this decade and reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050. UCS found that the IRA more than doubles the current rate of annual US emissions reductions to roughly 3 percent through 2030. But to lower emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the United States would have to cut emissions by more than 5 percent a year.

How is that going to happen?

An interdisciplinary team of UCS experts put their heads together to answer that question. The result: a new report, Accelerating Clean Energy Ambition, showing that there are viable, cost-effective ways for the United States to meet its emissions reduction targets. Their report, however, comes with a warning. “Without decisive action within this decade to accelerate US and global ambition, the Paris Agreement temperature goals could slip from our grasp.”

That would be potentially disastrous.

I recently sat down virtually with one of the report’s lead authors, Steve Clemmer, director of energy research for the UCS Climate and Energy program, to ask him some questions about his team’s findings. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN: As I mentioned in my introduction, a number of analyses have found that the IRA and other current policies will not be enough for the United States to meet its 2030 emission reduction goals. What exactly will the IRA accomplish, and where does it fall short?

SC: Our analysis shows that effective implementation of the IRA, the infrastructure act, and state policies would enable the United States to make significant progress toward achieving its near-term climate goals and yield substantial economic and public health benefits at the same time. Taken together, these federal and state initiatives could help cut total US heat-trapping emissions 34 percent below 2005 levels in 2030 and 53 percent by 2035, which would fall short of our 2030 targets but meet them a few years later.

The IRA will stimulate most of the near-term private investment in clean energy and related infrastructure to decarbonize the US economy, spurring more than a trillion dollars in capital investments through 2035. It also will save US consumers money because they will spend less on fossil fuels. Combining those savings with IRA incentives, which reduce the cost of investing in clean energy technologies, will lower overall US energy expenditures by 3 percent in 2030 and save US households and businesses nearly $89 billion in that one year alone.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

IRA clean energy investments also will protect public health by cutting key toxic air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, by more than 50 percent by 2050, and drastically reduce fine particulate matter, which will save hundreds of billions of dollars in 2035 alone from avoided premature deaths.

Even with all that, we will still need additional policies and investments across all sectors just to close the near-term gap of slashing emissions in half by 2030, let alone close the much larger long-term gap to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Our analysis found there are practical pathways for the United States to meet its near-term and long-term climate targets, but it will require immediate action that dramatically ramps up the deployment of clean energy technologies and related infrastructure. Doing so would generate even greater benefits, including a $100-billion reduction in consumer energy costs in 2030 and, by 2050, as much as $800 billion in public health benefits and nearly $1.3 trillion in avoided climate change-related damages.

EN: UCS’s analysis looks at various ways the United States could meet its climate targets. What are the main solutions?

SC: There are three primary solutions that can get us most of the way. First, decarbonizing the electricity sector mainly with wind and solar to replace coal and fossil gas. Second, replacing fossil fuels with clean electricity in the transportation, building, and industrial sectors. And third, increasing energy efficiency and lowering overall energy demand in those sectors.

Many of these solutions, which are proven and commercially available, can lower energy bills and be readily ramped up to achieve US climate targets. Transitioning to alternative, zero-carbon fuels in the transportation sector would be another important strategy for reducing emissions, but those fuels are at an earlier stage of development.

Decarbonizing the power sector is the most important near-term strategy to meet US climate goals. It is also critical for enabling longer-term initiatives that replace fossil fuels and reduce emissions in other sectors. The IRA and current state policies recognize this fact by including incentives for consumers and businesses to purchase electric vehicles and replace inefficient gas, oil, and propane boilers, furnaces, and water heaters with highly efficient electric heat pumps, which also provide cooling in the summer. As a result of these and other strategies we explored in our report, we found that electricity use as a share of US energy demand would jump from 21 percent in 2021 to 53 percent in 2050 under the two net-zero scenarios we analyzed.

Energy efficiency also plays a critical role. It reduces the use of and emissions from fossil fuels by providing the same level of service while consuming less energy, lowering energy costs, improving health and comfort, creating jobs, and reducing waste. Weatherizing homes and improving their efficiency can simultaneously lower energy needs and offer critical protection in the event of extreme weather power outages. Efficiency is also indispensable because it can greatly reduce the amount of new clean energy infrastructure, including power plants and transmission lines, that would be needed to decarbonize the economy.

EN: We have already seen a great deal of progress. In 2007, when US carbon emissions peaked, renewables—including hydropower—generated only 8 percent of US electricity. Fifty percent came from coal and 20 percent came from fossil gas. In 2022, 23 percent of US electricity came from renewables including hydro, surpassing both coal and nuclear. Over those 15 years, US global warming emissions declined about 17 percent. And earlier this year, wind and solar alone generated more electricity than coal for the first time. What should the United States do now to accelerate the pace of electricity sector emission reductions?

SC: The growth we have seen in wind and solar over the past 15 years has been nothing short of amazing. Federal tax credits combined with state renewable electricity standards and plummeting costs have been key drivers of this phenomenal expansion. And even with the recent uptick in costs due to inflation, supply chain constraints, and higher commodity prices that have affected all technologies, the national average cost of producing electricity from land-based wind power fell 70 percent between 2009 and 2022, while the cost of utility-scale solar photovoltaics has dropped by more than 84 percent since 2010.

The United States needs to accelerate this momentum and ramp up renewables to much higher levels to meet climate goals. Our analysis shows the country has to nearly triple the share of electricity from renewables to 60 percent by 2030, 81 percent by 2035, and 92 percent by 2050. Almost all of this new generation would come from wind and solar, and most of the near-term deployment would be due to IRA tax incentives and existing state policies. This increase in wind and solar would lead to a phaseout of coal by 2030, while fossil gas would fall to a 25-percent share of US electricity in 2030 and just 2 percent in 2050.

The good news is that there are currently more than 10,000 proposed wind and solar projects across the country representing 1,260 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity and 680 GW of storage capacity actively seeking interconnection to the transmission system, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The challenge is getting these projects and the additional transmission capacity to support them approved, permitted, and sited in a timely fashion.

Our analysis also shows that broader investments to lower overall energy demand would provide another crucial pathway for meeting US climate goals. When technological changes to the energy system are combined with achievable reductions in demand in such sectors as transportation, buildings, and industry, our analysis found even more potential for public health and economic benefits. Additional reductions in energy demand also lessen the need for new wind, solar, storage, transmission and other low-carbon technology infrastructure. Furthermore, it would limit the need for minerals and land, and help mitigate siting, permitting, supply chain, and public-acceptance challenges.

EN: In 2021, the executive director of the world’s foremost energy authority, the International Energy Agency (IEA), warned: “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal….” Regardless, major oil and gas companies are doubling down on fossil fuels. Your thoughts?

SC: Both the IEA and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been sounding the alarm about the need to stop making new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure—and the need to replace existing fossil fuel infrastructure with clean energy—if the world is going to have a fighting chance of keeping global average temperatures from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius and well below 2 degrees C. Oil and gas company plans to boost production and build new pipelines and other infrastructure are not only extremely dangerous from a climate perspective, they also could leave them with billions of dollars in stranded assets. Their plans also fly in the face of the commitments many of these companies have made to reduce their emissions consistent with net-zero targets.

The urgency of the climate crisis requires a sharp turn away from fossil fuels toward clean energy solutions, so any momentum from the IRA’s incentives to significantly cut emissions could be at risk if fossil fuel use increases at the same time. Our analysis found that an ambitious suite of policies to meet US climate goals would cause overall fossil fuel use to fall 82 percent between 2021 and 2050. Oil would drop by 85 percent, gas by 72 percent, and coal would be eliminated entirely. 

EN: What does your report recommend that the federal and state governments do going forward?

SC: We recommend that federal and state policymakers build on the IRA and other current policies by setting science-based reduction goals for all heat-trapping emissions and enacting ambitious policies for every sector. We also recommend that they adopt near- and long-term plans to cut fossil fuel production and use, reject fossil fuel infrastructure expansion, limit the role of carbon capture and storage and other carbon management strategies, and hold fossil fuel companies accountable for fraud and damages.

Last but not least, state and federal authorities have to ensure that whatever initiatives they take protect disadvantaged communities that have borne the brunt of industrial pollution. These communities must be prime beneficiaries of investments in clean energy technologies and efforts to cut toxic pollutants and carbon emissions.

Our policymakers have the responsibility to put our nation firmly on the path to a better future that runs on clean energy and is free of the fossil fuel pollution that has caused the twin crises of climate change and environmental injustice. With the well-being of people, ecosystems, and the planet at stake, the choice is clear.

Elliott Negin writes about UCS-related topics for a range of news organizations. Prior to joining UCS, Elliott was the Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.

The Equation is a blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists on science, solutions and justice.