Environmental Edge
November 4, 2021

COP26: United States Announces Strategy to Reach Net-Zero Emissions by 2050

Environmental Edge: Climate Change & Regulatory Insights

In preparation for the 26th United Nations Climate Conference (COP26), the Biden Administration has released its Long Term Strategy to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This net-zero by 2050 ambition is the first stated goal of COP26, and is consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) conclusions that reaching net zero by 2050 will be necessary to limit global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The Biden Administration’s net-zero strategy focuses on reducing carbon dioxide emissions across four core sectors (electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry), increasing carbon removal activities, and reducing emissions of non-carbon greenhouse gas emissions. The report incorporates previously-announced US climate goals and identifies several potential pathways to achieving net zero, in an effort to demonstrate that net zero by mid-century is attainable and to project what net zero may look like in 2050. The report, which generally refrains from announcing new policy proposals, is intended to satisfy the United States’ obligation under Article 4.19 of the Paris Agreement to communicate its long-term emissions strategy to the international community.

Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the Electricity Sector

Decarbonization of the electricity sector is a priority of the Long Term Strategy, which emphasizes how a “clean” electric grid will have downstream benefits to many economic sectors. Noting that the electricity sector has already been rapidly decarbonizing since 2008, the Strategy restates the administration’s goal of 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. This goal, announced concurrently with the President’s net zero by 2050 target in a January executive order, remains a core foundation of the US strategy to achieve net zero. To accomplish this goal, the Strategy highlights that increases in renewable electricity generation capacity, investment in new transmission, distribution, and storage infrastructure, deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS), and increased research into advanced technologies will each be of significant importance.

With uncertainty surrounding the future of federal climate legislation, the Long Term Strategy relies on federal leadership, monitoring, technology innovation, state action, and other non-legislative tools. In addition, if the Reconciliation Bill passes in its current form, it will contain $555 billion in clean energy and climate investments, much of which is directed at the electricity sector through tax incentives and funding mechanisms to incentivize renewable energy sources and improvements to and expansion of the nation’s electric transmission network. These tools could become of even greater importance if the Supreme Court, which has recently granted certiorari in four cases involving the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, limits the EPA’s ability to decarbonize the electricity sector under the Clean Air Act.

Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the Transportation Sector

The transportation sector represents 29% of all US emissions, more than any other sector. To stimulate emissions reductions in this sector, the Strategy relies on expanded use of electric vehicles, sustainable biofuels, and clean hydrogen as well as improvements to public transportation. The Strategy restates a goal, first announced in an August Executive Order, of ensuring that half of all vehicles sold in 2030 are zero-emission vehicles. Incentives and advances in battery technology are identified as key drivers of increases in electric vehicle popularity, while the high cost of charging infrastructure is identified as a key barrier. Improved public transit systems are also identified as having the potential to both reduce emissions and increase equity in mobility. For portions of the transportation sector that are harder to decarbonize, including aviation, maritime transport, and heavy trucking, the Strategy calls for accelerated research into the application of sustainable biofuels, clean hydrogen, and other low-carbon fuels.

Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the Building Sector

The majority of carbon dioxide emissions from buildings come from the use of electricity; thus, a decarbonized electric grid will decrease emissions attributed to the building sector. However, the Strategy also identifies three additional areas in which the building sector can improve its energy use and efficiency: 1) technological advances in “envelope” improvements such as insulation and windows; 2) improved efficiency of electric end uses such as lightbulbs and appliances; and 3) increased electrification of space heaters, water heaters, and cooking uses. The Strategy also calls for these improvements to be made available to households across all income levels.

Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the Industrial Sector

The Strategy estimates that investments in advanced non-carbon fuels, energy efficiency, and electrification can reduce the industrial sector’s carbon dioxide emissions by 69–95% by 2050. To achieve this, the Strategy projects the use of fossil fuels with CCS, biomass with CCS, biomass without CCS, electricity, and hydrogen to each increase, while use of fossil fuels without CCS will decrease sharply. Due to the diversity of activities included within the industrial sector, the Strategy notes that each subsector may take different approaches to decarbonization; however, key strategies are likely to include a mix of energy efficiency, material efficiency, electrification, adoption of low-carbon fuel and feedstocks, and CCS.

Removing Carbon Dioxide through Land-Use & Engineered Technologies

Carbon dioxide removal through both land-use choices and engineered technologies plays an important role in the Strategy to reach net-zero in sectors that are difficult to decarbonize. Forests, agricultural lands, and bioenergy are each identified as focus points in the Strategy’s land-based carbon removal approach. For engineered approaches, the Strategy acknowledges that it is difficult to predict which approach may eventually be most appropriate to deploy, but highlights four potential options: 1) biomass carbon removal and storage; 2) direct air capture and storage; 3) enhanced mineralization; and 4) ocean-based carbon dioxide removal. The Strategy notes that additional research and development will be necessary for each of these technologies and promotes Congress’ recently created Carbon Dioxide Removal Task Force as one step towards development of these technologies.

Reducing Non-Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In addition to reduction and removal of carbon dioxide, the Biden Administration has highlighted the importance of removing non-carbon greenhouse gasses, including methane, nitrous oxides, and fluorinated gases. The Long Term Strategy announces a goal of reducing methane emissions 30% by 2030, as compared with a 2020 baseline. One major component of achieving this goal is the EPA’s proposed rulemaking announced Tuesday to reduce methane emissions from both new and existing sources in the oil and gas sector under the Clean Air Act. 

© Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP 2021 All Rights Reserved. This blog post is intended to be a general summary of the law and does not constitute legal advice. You should consult with counsel to determine applicable legal requirements in a specific fact situation.

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