FINDING LEGAL PATHWAYS TO DEEP DECARBONIZATION IN THE UNITED STATES

Posted on July 21, 2016 by John Dernbach

On December 12, 2015, in Paris, France, the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change—a total of 196 countries—unanimously agreed to a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of this century.  For the United States, the technical and logistical challenge of achieving the goal of the Paris Agreement (as it is called) is enormous, but so is the legal challenge.

The U.S. short-term emissions reduction objective, stated in a submission made in the run-up to the Paris conference, is “to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26%–28% below its 2005 level in 2025.”  This objective, the U.S. says, “is consistent with a straight line emission reduction pathway from 2020 to deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80% or more by 2050.”   Achieving the short-term goal depends on the outcome of the presidential election as well as litigation involving the Clean Power Plan.  And there was, until recently, no roadmap for deep U.S. reductions by 2050. 

The absence of long-term analysis, in the U.S. and other countries, is being filled by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, which is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.  It is based on the work of research teams in 16 countries that are responsible for 74 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions--Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  DDPP says in a report synthesizing the findings of the project to date that most of these countries “had never developed pathways consistent with a global 2°C limit, nor were they actively considering this question.”   (The purpose of the Climate Change Convention is to keep the increase in global temperatures from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions below a “dangerous” level.  That level is widely regarded as 2°C, or 3.6 °F, above pre-industrial levels, although the Paris Agreement seeks to keep the increase “well below” that level.  The temperature increase to date is already about 0.9 °C above 1880 levels, when temperatures were first recorded.)

DDPP has conducted a technical analysis and policy analysis of pathways to deep decarbonization for the United States.  These reports, prepared by E3 (an energy consulting firm), the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, appear to be the most detailed studies of how to achieve deep reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  

Perhaps the DDPP’s most important finding “is that it is technically feasible for the U.S. to reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions from fossil fuel combustion” by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050, which is “an order of magnitude decrease in per capita emissions compared to 2010.”  If the U.S. did that, it could reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  

Enormous changes would be required in the U.S. energy system to make those reductions happen.  Because it is difficult to decarbonize gasoline and liquid fuels, the researchers said, meeting the 2050 objective would require almost complete decarbonization of electricity and, among other things, switching a “large share” of end uses that require gasoline and liquid fuels over to electricity (such as electric cars).  It would also be necessary to produce fuel from electricity itself, they said, citing the production of hydrogen from hydrolysis as an example. 

Decarbonizing electricity and producing fuel from electricity itself would double electricity generation but reduce its carbon intensity to 3% to 10% of current levels, requiring a vast increase in either renewable energy (as much as “2,500 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar generation (30 times present capacity))” or carbon capture and sequestration.  The average fuel economy for light duty vehicles such as cars would need to be over 100 miles per gallon, and these vehicles would need to be fueled almost entirely by electricity and hydrogen.  

The challenge of translating these technical and policy pathways into a workable legal framework is considerable.  Assuming, for example, that the U.S. can achieve 54.5 miles per gallon as a fleet-wide average for new vehicles by 2025, as the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard requires, how does the U.S. achieve a fleet-wide average of more than 100 miles per gallon for all vehicles by 2050? As DDPP explains, “[t]his would require the deployment of roughly 300 million alternative fuel vehicles by 2050.”  A similar conundrum exists in reliance on renewable energy sources: what legal changes are needed to guide the development of the grid so that it can continue to be reliable while it accommodates a vast increase in intermittent electricity sources such as solar and wind energy?

Michael Gerrard, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, and I have begun work on an edited volume that will identify and analyze a wide variety of legal pathways to decarbonization in the United States, based on these reports.  We have assembled an excellent team of legal scholars and practitioners and are aiming for publication in 2017.  We hope to inspire similar efforts in other countries.  

An essential part of the decarbonization challenge is proposing, analyzing, and comparing various legal decarbonization pathways in each individual country, including the U.S.  In the face of a daunting challenge, there exists a real possibility that lawyers can help improve human quality of life throughout the world by facilitating the creation of a legal framework that accommodates zero-carbon development.