Last week, the Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy (THRIVE) resolution was introduced in the House by Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM). THRIVE has 85 original Congressional cosponsors and has been endorsed by more than 200 organizations—including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—and sets an ambitious and just agenda for economic renewal and climate action. With our nation reeling from an unprecedented wildfire and hurricane season, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis—all of which are exacerbating long-standing racial and socioeconomic disparities—this call to action couldn’t come at a more fitting time.
Bold, ambitious, aspirational goals
The THRIVE agenda is bold in its aspirations, centers justice and equity, and is informed by climate science. That’s why UCS is proud to be part of a broad and diverse climate justice movement supporting this resolution.
We only need to look around the nation today to see that devastating and costly climate change impacts are already here and now, as evidenced by horrific wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington, as well as the super-charged 2020 hurricane season that just won’t let up.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has taken nearly 198,000 lives thus far in the US. Millions of people are unemployed. Many are facing hunger and eviction from their homes.
At the same time, we are in a long-needed moment of national reckoning with long-standing racism and racist violence against Black people and Black communities. The evidence is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crises are taking a disproportionate toll on low-income communities, communities of color and Tribal communities, compounding long-standing injustices and inequities.
The THRIVE resolution powerfully speaks to what’s needed now, as we try to recover, rebuild and set right past injustices. Here are just some of its many important elements:
- The resolution recognizes the intersectional nature of many of our nation’s problems, including the climate crisis, and the need to center justice and equity in our solutions.
- It calls for robust investments in upgrading our nation’s failing infrastructure, while creating millions of good, safe, high-quality jobs.
- It directs that at least 40% of these investments should flow to communities that have long been marginalized and discriminated against due to racist and unjust practices.
- It calls for strengthening and healing the nation-to-nation relationship with Sovereign Native Nations, through systemic changes in federal policies and honoring Tribal sovereignty.
- Recognizing that the power sector is the lynchpin of economywide decarbonization, the resolutions sets an aspirational goal of decarbonizing the nation’s electricity by 2035 while addressing the cumulative burden of pollution in environmental justice (EJ) communities.
The power sector goal in the THRIVE resolution
The THRIVE resolution’s aspirational goals are laudable and set an appropriately high-water mark for ambition and justice. As power sector experts, my colleagues and I have been giving a lot of thought to the power sector goal in particular:
“transforming the power sector in order to move the country, by not later than 2035, to carbon pollution-free electricity that passes an environmental justice screen to prevent concentrating pollution in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.”
There are two important pieces to this goal: (1) decarbonizing the power sector and (2) addressing long-standing environmental injustices that have led to accumulating pollution—especially harmful and toxic pollution from our dependence on fossil fuels—and devastating health impacts in low-income communities and communities of color.
UCS has historically focused more on the first part of that challenge: the technical solutions to help decarbonize the power sector, primarily through ramping up energy efficiency and renewable energy. The second part of the power sector goal represents an important way to deliver on a long-standing demand from EJ communities to reduce the burden of cumulative pollution and ensure that climate policies also reduce other harmful and toxic pollutants from burning fossil fuels.
It’s powerful to see an EJ screen mentioned like this in a Congressional resolution. Here is an opportunity for literally life-saving two-fers—let’s cut carbon pollution and make sure we do it in a way that directly prioritizes and benefits communities that have suffered the most harm from our dependence on polluting sources of power.
My colleagues and I at UCS are excited to learn more and collaborate with EJ experts on helping to advance this goal. We recognize that our focus on technologies and technological change is inadequate; we have a lot of work to do to be better allies to EJ communities, and for UCS to become a truly anti-racist organization.
Where are we in our transition to carbon pollution-free power?
Our analyses, along with research from many other experts, and real world data show the incredible success of policies like state renewable electricity standards, energy efficiency standards and federal renewable energy tax credits; dramatic decreases in the costs of renewable power; and the faltering market economics of coal-fired power—which have all contributed to a steep drop in power sector carbon emissions of about 30 percent over the last decade (and, however, created risks of an overreliance on natural gas).
Renewable electricity is now about 20 percent of our electricity mix and, combined with nuclear power, we are now at about 40 percent carbon-free power in 2020. The EIA forecasts that wind and solar power will be the fastest growing sources of power in 2020.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that without much more assertive new policies—especially at the federal level—we will simply not be able ratchet up the momentum on a scale commensurate with the climate challenge. We need to get to net zero emissions economy wide no later than 2050, and be well on that path—halving economywide emissions—by 2030. But under a business as usual scenario, EIA’s AEO2020 shows overall US energy-related CO2 emissions staying relatively flat at about 2019 levels through 2050, with power sector emissions leveling out after 2025 at about 20 percent below 2019 levels. The COVID-19 and economic crisis have put further pressure on the renewable electricity industry. UCS and others have called for Congressional action to address this.
With bold and ambitious policies—such as some combination of a robust national clean energy standard, tax credits, a price on carbon, significant investments in energy storage, transmission, and R&D, and ramping up energy efficiency—we can dramatically decarbonize the power sector. When the THRIVE Resolution gets translated to detailed legislation, I hope we will see robust and equitable suite of policies and I hope there will be broad bipartisan support for them.
Can we get to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035?
I’ll be honest, it looks like a pretty daunting challenge to get all the way there, even with very optimistic assumptions. Adding to the challenge is that the power sector will have to take on additional demand to help electrify other sectors in the economy, a key component of economywide deep decarbonization.
We do know how to get a long way toward that goal. A recent study from University of Berkeley and Gridlab shows it is technically and economically feasible to get up to 90 percent of the way to a carbon-free power sector by 2035. A policy brief from Energy Innovation lays out some of the key policies that would be needed to achieve this goal.
Led by California, New York, and most recently Virginia, nine states (plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico) have already set aggressive goals or mandates for getting to 100 percent clean energy, with different target dates, and we are seeing more and more interest from states, cities, utilities and businesses level for these types of appropriately ambitious goals. Achieving California’s goal of getting to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045 is clearly within reach, for example.
Setting ambitious goals can be a powerful catalyst for policy action to set the course and drive the necessary changes to get us to that goal. The THRIVE resolution’s power sector target is a moonshot goal for the power sector that we have to try our best to achieve.
What we also know for sure is that we need to get firmly on the path to a net zero economy, with a decarbonized power sector, as soon as possible to help limit the rapidly worsening climate crisis. We don’t need to know how to get all the way there to take robust policy action now. A just and equitable clean energy transition will also bring tremendous public health and economic benefits to communities. The risk of setting an ambitious goal and maybe falling a bit short is far preferable to the risks of runaway climate change and continued harms to communities.
The technical challenges—and economic challenges—often boil down to the getting the last 10-15 percent of the emissions down to zero. There’s no doubt that with additional innovation in power sector technologies, which require some time, we have a very good chance of overcoming these challenges. And if the timeframe for the goal were to be extended by 5 or 10 years, it is even more feasible that we can fully meet the goal.
Many of the changes needed for deep decarbonization are actually changes in market structures, incentives, and institutional shifts that would allow for more rapid technological and socioeconomic changes than current systems allow. As just one example, we know we are going to have to install a tremendous amount of new transmission to get more renewable energy on the grid and to people where they live. Currently, the process of getting new transmission sited and built is simply too cumbersome and takes too long. Changing institutional structures can and must also be done in way that ensures more equitable and just outcomes.
A just and equitable clean energy transition
It’s not enough to just focus on cutting carbon emissions—how we make this clean energy transition is vitally important to ensure that it benefits all communities, especially those that have been disadvantaged or marginalized.
We must also lean into opportunities for political, social and economic changes, not just technological shifts. This is a rich topic, deserving of much more attention in traditional policy circles and ripe for interdisciplinary research, policy development and inclusive stakeholder engagement—and, yes, legislation. EJ and labor advocates are already leading the way. This includes advancing energy democracy and energy justice so that communities can own and benefit directly from renewable energy resources, and can reap the public health and economic benefits of a transition away from fossil fuels. A fair clean energy transition must also center the needs of working people—powerfully detailed in the BGA Solidarity for Climate Action platform and the National Economic Transition Platform.
Fossil fuel interests continue to oppose climate action
Let’s be clear: there is a well-funded and powerful fossil fuel lobby and their political allies that stand in opposition to climate action. There are some who still deny the reality of climate change!
There will be those who will seek to protect their profits by delaying or stopping ambitious climate action, focusing outsize attention on that last ~10 percent of decarbonization instead of the considerable progress that is well within reach. They will continue to misrepresent the costs of cutting emissions—even as we watch the costs of climate impacts spiral out of control. They might at best support small, incremental changes that are nowhere near enough to address the climate challenge.
Don’t be fooled. These people never cared about a clean energy transition in the first place.
Building a winning movement for climate action
The THRIVE resolution brings together an incredible array of organizations, building power at a very consequential time for policy action. Faced with multiple crises—systemic racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn and climate change—our nation needs bold, intersectional and just solutions.
The power of this movement is undeniable already and we will win the day.