Looks Good on Paper: Study Says Emissions Cuts Don’t Have to Harm Economy

Nuclear power plantOnce again, another report has come out showing that — with the right actions — we could see a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next couple of decades. Once again, the news raises the same question as previous reports: will we ever see enough political will to make the possible become reality?

This week, the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company released a report, “Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How Much at What Cost?,” showing how the U.S. could cut its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as half by 2030 … without wreaking havoc on the economy or placing faith on pie-in-the-sky technological fixes.

There’s a caveat, of course: “Achieving these reductions at the lowest cost to the economy, however, will require strong, coordinated, economy-wide action that begins in the near future.”

What kind of action? The report’s authors looked at more than 250 ways to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, analyzing the potential costs and impacts of each. These included everything from improving the energy efficiency of buildings and appliances, building more nuclear power plants and generating more wind and solar energy to putting more energy-efficient, lightweight fleet vehicles on the road and, eventually, developing more ways to capture and store carbon emissions.

The report sets out three scenarios for future emissions: a low-range case in which we make only incremental changes from “business as usual” (for annual emissions reductions of 1.3 gigatons by 2030); a mid-range case that would require concerted action across the economy (for reductions of 3 gigatons); and a high-range case that would need “urgent national mobilization” (4.5 gigatons).

For comparison’s sake, as of 2005, the U.S. put out about 7.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions each year. Those emissions are expected to rise by 35 percent to 9.7 gigatons by 2030.

“The high-range case suggests an extremely ambitious effort across all sectors of the economy and parts of the country,” the report states. “Increasing the nuclear generation fleet by 50 percent net of retirements, building 80 gigawatts of (carbon capture and storage)-equipped generation capacity, and expanding biofuels to 67 billion gallons (reaching 30 percent of the forecast gasoline pool) could each be considered challenging goals. Achieving an entire set of such ambitious goals is thus unlikely without widespread and sustained national commitment.”

“Few of these opportunities can be realized without the right policy incentives, and many of them could slip away if we don’t grab them soon,” said Peter Goldmark, director of the climate and air program at Environmental Defense, one of the sponsors of the report. Other sponsors included DTE Energy, Honeywell, National Grid, the Natural Resources Defense Council, PG&E and Shell.

That’s the rub, of course. The goals look great on paper, but will they ever see the real light of day?

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