North Carolina Agenda: Our Climate Action Plan
As a father of young children who will live to see the consequences, and as a candidate for federal office whose potential constituents have made exceptionally clear their desire to see swift action in this space, our campaign has decided to make climate action a major part of our platform.
To start, we should approach climate change with a sense of urgency and confidence.
The truth is, we have everything we need to make rapid, dramatic progress while accelerating economic growth and making our lives generally better.
It’s a confusing debate because it’s such a big debate. Conveying a clear plan is about giving people a sense of the truly essential tasks, the stuff that simply must happen if we’re going to be successful.
Overwhelmingly, tackling climate change is about decarbonization. We have to rapidly slow our greenhouse emissions, of which carbon dioxide is the far-and-away leader but methane is also a major problem.
So how do we do that? What are the absolutely essential tasks?
There are five:
- Decarbonize our sources of electricity
- Electrify as much of the economy as possible
- Aggressively reduce methane emissions
- Enlist the agricultural community as allies
- Scale-up R&D to speed-up the entire process
Now let’s unpack those tasks and look at what each one will require.
- Decarbonizing our sources of electricity
This task is fundamentally about accelerating our transition from coal and natural gas power plants to renewable sources.
So how do we do this? What’s the surest path that we can undertake right now?
It’s a clean energy standard. The idea is that we set an enforceable standard that steadily reduces the allowable carbon emissions from energy providers.
In 2007, North Carolina took a big step in this direction by being the first state in the southeast to adopt an early version of a clean energy standard. We called it the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.
Basically, we told the major energy providers in our state that a certain percentage of all the energy they produced had to come from renewable sources, and that percentage was going to increase every year — until 2020, when it capped out at 12.5% of their total energy produced.
But we’ve hit the cap — and 12.5% isn’t enough. Until last month, 35 states had set a cap of 100%.
But here’s the good news: We just became the 36th. Our state legislature — in a surprisingly forward-looking approach — just enacted a new clean energy standard that would mandate a 70% reduction in carbon emissions from our energy producers by 2030 and net zero by 2050. I was proud to support it, and I firmly believe it’s an example for a national approach.
At the federal level, a key benefit of a clean energy standard is the flexibility given to states to determine what manner of renewable works best for them. In the Midwest and Texas, that might be a lot of wind. In the upper-Midwest, hydro is already playing a big role. In our state, it’s mainly solar right now — but offshore wind could become a major component as well. The clean energy standard allows our utility systems to determine the most cost-effective means of hitting their target, so we would expect to see a different mix of renewable portfolios across various regions.
This is also where a lot of the new jobs come from by tackling climate. A clean energy standard will result in wide-scale, sustained investment in new energy infrastructure — and potentially millions of new jobs. Those are jobs that cannot be outsourced and that pay well.
A version of a clean energy standard was included in the original Build Back Better package (i.e., the reconciliation bill). Senator Joe Manchin opposed it, so the latest news is that it’s been removed.
Sen. Manchin was wrong to oppose it. Winning this election is key to providing a crucial vote in favor of enacting a clean energy standard, without which there is likely no realistic chance of achieving net zero by 2050. Failing to enact some version of this standard essentially places a massive bet that technological innovation and free market forces alone will be sufficient to result in a dramatically accelerated decarbonization. This seems both unlikely and incredibly risky, given the global ramifications of getting this wrong.
Support residential (and small-scale) solar
Utility-scale solutions to decarbonization are indispensable, but we also need smaller-scale solutions. We should be making it as easy and affordable for you to install solar panels as we possibly can. The price of solar has come down dramatically, already making it cost-competitive in many parts of the country. But it comes with an upfront investment that deters a lot of potential customers, and that’s something that tax credits have been historically helpful at overcoming.
We should have a government that actively encourages you to consider installing solar and investing in weatherization. To that end, modest tax credits are entirely appropriate.
Ensure a just transition
The impacts of climate change, such as air pollution, flooding, extreme heat waves, disproportionately harm communities of color as well as low-income communities. Our continued inaction is an ongoing injustice. The idea of a just transition applies not only to the urgency of the moment, but it also applies to the manner of the transition.
Tackling a challenge this big will come with some amount of disruption. It’s unavoidable.
The good news is that decarbonization and enhanced investments in renewables and innovation will create lots of new jobs — often in low-income communities.
I support the administration’s commitment to ensuring that 40% of federal investment in clean energy and clean water go to the communities that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution, as well as legislation proposed by Sen. Markey and Sen. Duckworth to ensure we have enough data to properly identify the communities that are at greatest risk.
With that data in hand, local coordination is going to be key to targeting investment effectively. The success of minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs in these communities will depend on more than access to capital — it will depend on local strategies developed by local leaders. Our communities need to start preparing — now — for a coordinated approach to using that investment. There should be flexibility given to those communities to allow them to put into practice the plans they’ve developed. The model should be top-down support with bottom-up implementation.
But that’s not enough. We need to ensure that there are living-wage jobs in the renewable sector and the best way to do that is to give workers the ability to join unions that can bargain effectively for greater pay and benefits.
2. Electrifying as much of the economy as possible
Decarbonizing our sources of electricity isn’t simply about reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants (which comprise roughly 25% of our emissions).
The broader implications are that our electric vehicles, electric heaters, and electric-everything-else won’t rely on energy produced by burning fossil fuels. Driving an electric car is great, but only if it’s not being charged each night by a coal plant.
One of the most promising features of electrification is that it has a natural efficiency advantage over fossil fuels, which means the mere act of switching involves a major net reduction in overall energy — which means we don’t need a 1-to-1 replacement of every current gigawatt produced by fossil fuels. One estimate is that wide-scale electrification would cut net energy use in half — simply through the efficiency gain in using electricity and without assuming major changes to daily behavior.
That is an incredibly compelling feature of switching to electric power wherever possible and simply realizing those efficiency gains would be a spring-loaded launch into our decarbonization.
Now let’s look at two major sectors of our economy — the transportation sector and buildings, which together account for 60% of U.S. carbon emissions — and walk through the major components of electrifying each one.
Electrifying the transportation sector, including light and heavy-duty vehicles
In the U.S., the transportation sector accounts for 29% percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Roughly 17% of total emissions come from just light-duty vehicles. That’s great news as light-duty vehicles are primed to transition to electrification. The technological barriers are shrinking and the necessary infrastructure (i.e., charging stations) is spreading rapidly, making us fully capable of rapidly transitioning light-duty vehicles from fossil fuels to electric.
The same is starting to happen with heavy-duty vehicles. Ford is switching its trucks to electric. UPS, FedEx, and Amazon are all moving in the direction of electric delivery vehicles. This is particularly important given that the use of delivery trucks is estimated to increase by roughly 36% over the next decade. Without a rapid transition to electric vehicles, that will lead to an enormous increase in greenhouse emissions.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill makes a down payment on establishing a nationwide electric vehicle charging network, but more will need to be done. The infrastructure bill did not include an earlier proposal to provide tax credits for consumers purchasing electric vehicles that are assembled in the United States — an unfortunate omission that we will need to correct to accelerate our transition.
Residential and commercial buildings produce roughly 13% of our greenhouse emissions. Substantially reducing this number via electrification is straightforward and could be accomplished almost entirely with existing technology. Electric heaters are already surging in popularity in Southern states and are cost competitive with fossil fuel heating options. In the South, heat pumps have amounted to over half of all residential heating systems installed in the last 15 years — a strong trend on which we can build.
Start building more transmission now
Earlier we mentioned that one of the major features of electrification was that it’s natural efficiency compared to fossil fuels means that we can do fundamentally the same activities (i.e., driving, heating, lighting) for far less net energy by switching to electric power.
But here’s the challenge: Even though we’re going to use less net energy, we’re going to produce far more electricity, and that means far more transmission of electricity. As in, perhaps, triple the transmission.
Not only will the overall quantity of electricity go up, but transmission routes are likely to be longer. Why? Because wind and solar energy are both geographically constrained based on where they’ll be more cost-effective. For instance, the vast majority of wind potential is in the Midwest, but North Carolina has exceptional solar potential. We may also have strong offshore wind potential (but probably not as much as Virginia and Maryland).
As a result, not only will we be generating far more net electricity (again, while producing far less net energy), but we’ll also need to transmit some of that energy farther than your average local coal or natural gas plant currently does. And that means investing in transmission, and getting that done sooner rather than later. And because that involves purchasing land on which to place high-voltage towers, this part of the process is almost certain to take longer than installing new solar fields of wind farms.
There is already a major backlog of proposed transmission — the vast majority being added wind and solar capacity. On a positive note, the bipartisan infrastructure bill did make some headway here, offering a 30% tax credit for the installation of long-distance transmission lines.
3) Aggressively reduce methane emissions
Not all of our climate goals can be accomplished by focusing on carbon dioxide emissions. We also need to accelerate the reduction of methane emissions while helping our country’s natural and working lands — and the stewards of those lands — to take measures that will sequester more carbon.
Carbon dioxide lasts longer in the atmosphere, but methane is far more efficient at trapping heat while it’s there. Over a 20 year period, methane is 80 times more effective at creating warming than carbon dioxide. About 25% of today’s warming comes from methane.
The good news is that, because the effect of methane is so powerful, aggressively reducing those emissions will buy us valuable time in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
The Biden administration has “unveiled a sweeping set of domestic policies” for reducing methane emitted by the oil and gas sectors. In North Carolina, we should also work with our agricultural community to control the methane emitted through the decomposition of organic waste.
4) Enlist the agricultural community as allies
Not all of our decarbonization can be accomplished by electrifying our economy. The agricultural sector, in particular, will need strong support as it adopts new practices that allow it to continue to feed the world but will do so in a way that emits far less carbon.
Here’s something we’ve learned from our trips to eastern North Carolina: Farmers are on the frontlines of climate change.
We haven’t found any climate deniers among farmers in the Eastern part of our state — probably because they’ve been hit by two 500-year hurricanes in the last three years.
As temperatures rise and weather becomes more extreme, our farmers are going to feel it first.
A big piece of having a real plan in this space is about bringing our farmers into the coalition. We want them to be allies in this fight, as they deserve to be.
We should start by acknowledging the good work that the agricultural and forestry sectors in our state have already done using natural climate solutions to achieve significant carbon sequestration.
That said, our agriculture sector still accounts for roughly 10% of greenhouse gases. We also know that by 2050 we’ll have nine billion people on the planet. We’ll need to feed them all, but do it in a way that reduces the current level of greenhouse gases.
The good news is that there are existing programs with which many farmers are familiar that, if expanded, would significantly improve their ability to reduce greenhouse gases.
In particular, the Conservation Stewardship Program should be expanded so that every farmer who wants to adopt new practices that reduce greenhouse gases can profitably do so. This program has been underfunded for years, creating a situation where demand among farmers dramatically outpaces capacity. Let’s meet the demand from farmers and help them move in a direction they already want to go.
(It’s also a great deal for taxpayers. For every dollar we put into the CSP, we get about $4 back.)
We should also strengthen programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
The more we support the agricultural community, the faster we’ll develop natural climate solutions that also make us more resilient to the effects of climate change — like increased floods and severe weather events — which low-income and agricultural communities often feel the worst.
5) Scale-up R&D to speed up the entire process
A clean energy standard is going to ensure a lot of private sector investment in technological innovation because it will create a massive financial incentive on the part of energy providers to find cost-effective ways to comply, but we should pair that heightened level of private sector investment with new levels of public sector investment.
Part of that is about making sure we provide capital through the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office to businesses and nonprofits who are trying new ways to reduce greenhouse emissions.
But we should also use this section to talk about carbon capture and nuclear energy, because in our town halls they come up frequently as questions.
Carbon capture used to be more controversial, as some feared that it would be used as an excuse not to address directly the root cause of climate change through decarbonization.
However, earlier this year the IPCC published its latest report on climate change. Among many findings, it stated, “All pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with limited or no overshoot project the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) on the order of 100–1000 GtCO2 over the 21st century.”
If we decipher that, the IPCC is saying that if we want to keep warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels — a benchmark target designed to keep us from hitting a climate tipping point — then getting to carbon neutral by 2050 won’t cut it. We have to go carbon negative.
That means carbon capture, and that means innovation.
It’s already begun. Google, Tesla, and other major companies are making big investments in finding new, more cost-effective means of direct air carbon capture.
Some methods of carbon capture are natural, such as planting more trees and using sustainable farming practices that draw carbon into the soil.
But capturing the gigatons we’re going to need to capture is going to require a large-scale, industrial effort. There’s no getting around it.
As an industry, direct air carbon capture is in its infancy. There are fewer than 20 such plants in the world. Partly as a result, it’s incredibly expensive.
For perspective, roughly a year from now construction will begin on the world’s largest direct air capture plant. It will be located in West Texas and we’re told it will be able to capture one million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. While that is a massive upgrade from the current plants that are capturing carbon at a rate of only thousands of tons per year, it’s still not enough. Keep in mind, the IPCC says that we need to remove hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air just to keep us from passing the 1.5°C target. (And we’re still emitting 50 billion tons each year…)
That means that — without any further innovation — we would need to build at least 100,000 of those size facilities over the next 30 years. For a sense of scale, that’s roughly triple the number of McDonald’s that exist on Earth.
So we need to get better at this, and that requires significant government investment. The Department of Energy recently announced its goal to drive the cost of carbon capture from the current cost of roughly $2,000 per ton down to $100 per ton. This effort is fundamentally about innovation, and we need to climb the learning curve as quickly as possible.
Nuclear power is a different conversation. We currently get about 20% of our electricity from nuclear plants, of which we have 56 around the country. The amount of electricity we get from nuclear plants has been declining for the last decade as aging reactors have gone offline. The last new reactor to go online was 2016 — before that it was 1996.
The basic issue is that the design of our nuclear plants — the “light-water” design — involves construction that is massively expensive (and most are losing money), very slow (the average plant takes 10 years to build), and must clear regulatory hurdles that are incredibly high.
So it’s hard to build new plants, and the ones we have are getting old.
But nuclear is our leading source of non-carbon emitting energy production, so it’s become a part of the climate conversation.
Instead of trying to overcome the barriers to building new light-water nuclear plants, another option is to focus on building smaller, modular reactors. They’re far less expensive and their smaller size raises the possibility of factory assembly that would rapidly benefit from economies of scale, bringing prices down even more.
But this is speculative, and the plunging price of solar calls into question whether it can be cost-competitive by the end of the decade.
But that shouldn’t stop innovation. Let’s find out what’s possible from an engineering standpoint and determine if it’s commercially feasible. New designs for nuclear reactors have to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Right now they’re working on a “risk-informed, technology-inclusive framework for the licensing and regulation of advanced nuclear reactors.” Basically that means they’re adapting their approval process to smaller reactors and determining how they want to balance safety and effectiveness in their approval criteria.
That’s where things stand with nuclear. It’s impossible to say how big a part of the grid it’s going to be in 2050 because so much depends on whether the innovation that many have promised actually materializes in a way that is cost-competitive with renewables, and a big piece of finding out is going to be having a new regulatory process that enables faster innovation. That said, even the best case scenario for nuclear innovation and development pushes out major new production out at least a decade, so in no scenario is it going to be a silver bullet.
With respect to the role of technology that either doesn’t exist or doesn’t exist at scale — like carbon capture or advanced nuclear — my belief is that proceeding with a sense of urgency means making a plan that can reach success without making those bets. If those technologies prove viable at-scale, that’s fantastic. But it would be reckless to make those assumptions, so let’s do the opposite. Let’s assume we have to decarbonize our sources of energy using technology that exists today. That takes us back to the top of this document, which started by advocating for a clean energy standard and an electrification of as much of our economy as possible — both of which we can make rapid progress toward without assuming major innovation.
Air travel currently produces roughly 2% of global emissions. Reducing that significantly involves clear technological challenges. Currently, standard electrification is impractical because of the weight of the battery. There are some ideas about how to revamp jet engines such that they no longer require fossil fuels, but this takes us into the realm of innovation.
Electrifying industry and manufacturing
Industrial processes produce roughly 22% of our greenhouse emissions. Tackling this sector is more challenging because existing technologies don’t always provide the level of energy required to conduct the same process, particularly with respect to cement and steel. These processes are occasionally used as examples for the limits of carbon reduction, when they really show how far we can go before new methods and technologies become truly necessary.
A reminder of the stakes
Most calls to action for climate change begin with a recitation of the consequences of failure. If you’re reading this document, you probably already have a good sense for that, so we chose to dive in with solutions rather than re-stating the problem.
But just to be clear: There are enormous global stakes here. The difference between a planet that stays below the 1.5°C target and one that blows past it is so large that stating it plainly often sounds like an exaggeration. It would affect all life on Earth, permanently, in a way that would make us deeply regret not having done more to prevent it from happening.
And on the fundamental question of whether climate change is primarily caused by human behavior, there is absolutely no doubt left. According to a new survey of 88,125 climate-related and peer-reviewed studies, over 99.9% of them agreed that we are the ones primarily causing climate change.
The good news is that North Carolina voters overwhelmingly want us to accelerate our transition to renewable energy, including a majority of voters in rural, urban, and suburban communities.
We can and must make dramatic progress as quickly as possible. The steps above outline our campaign’s broad thoughts about how to do that, but we also want to hear from you. Feel free to respond with any thoughts or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.