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Getting energized about the future

ASU Professor Clark Miller shares recommendations from new report to decarbonize US economy by 2050

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December 21, 2023

Climate negotiators have wrapped up their work at this month’s COP28, at which — for the first time ever — there was a calling for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050.”

It is a key goal, says Arizona State University’s Clark Miller, and one that the United States can achieve.

“Tackling climate change is one of the paramount issues facing Arizona and our nation,” said Miller, director of the Center for Energy and Society. “We need to rapidly decarbonize energy systems and the economy. That means ending the use of fossil fuels. We know how to do it, but we also can’t leave people behind in the process. There’s a lot of hard work to be done.”

Miller has spent much of the past three years working with leading U.S. researchers at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to figure out how the nation can achieve a just and equitable transition to carbon neutrality by midcentury. Their report, “Accelerating Decarbonization in the United States: Technology, Policy, and Societal Dimensions,” was published this fall and is the second in a series. 

The first report, published in 2021, helped Congress and the Biden administration frame some of the most important U.S. climate and energy policies in a generation. Now, the committee hopes this second report will help people all over the country implement those policies effectively.

The report recommends actions needed between now and 2030 to put the country on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050 and to reap the human benefits of a clean energy transition.

“One of the most important conclusions from the first report was that the energy transition is not just about the future of energy, it’s also about the future of the U.S. economy,” said Miller, a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. “If we do it right, the report makes clear, building a clean energy system can create a lot of benefits for the United States — improving health, strengthening U.S. manufacturing, enhancing the U.S. workforce, and improving energy and environmental justice.

“Across the U.S., including here in Arizona, regional leaders need to imagine, map out and implement the transition to a clean energy future, redesigning and rebuilding energy infrastructures in ways that lead to better lives for all of us.” 

Editor's note: The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photo of Clark Miller
Clark Miller

Question: What has been your involvement in this report and the report that came before it?   

Answer: I’ve been a member of the National Academies committee on accelerating decarbonization in the U.S. energy system since 2020. As a committee member, I was directly involved in framing, developing and writing both this report and the previous report that informed the development of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Inflation Reduction Act and the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative. My expertise is particularly on the human dimensions of deep decarbonization and energy transitions. This was the first major National Academies committee on the U.S. energy transition to include significant expertise on topics such as equity, workforce development, health and public engagement.

Q: What are some of the most significant differences between this year’s report and the 2021 report that came before it? 

A: After the first report was published in 2021, Congress and the Biden administration acted very ambitiously to tackle climate change, adopting many of the first report’s recommendations in what the report calls “the most ambitious set of legislative climate and energy initiatives ever enacted in the United States.” Those initiatives will result in somewhere between $400 billion and $1 trillion in new federal spending on clean energy between now and 2030, including substantial funds and policies aimed at reducing energy and environmental injustice and inequality. At the same time, the context for the report changed, too. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, fundamentally changed the global energy landscape and the realities of energy security for Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world. In this report, therefore, we retained the same task — figuring out how to get the U.S. to carbon neutrality by 2050 and recommending actions between now and 2030 to put us on that path — but had a different starting point. 

What this report does is ask what the gaps are between what recent policies have accomplished and what still needs to be done to put the U.S. on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The other big difference between the first and second reports is that this one was able to go into much more detail than the first report in terms of the diverse sectors of the economy: electricity, transportation, industry, fuels, the built environment, finance. It looks closer at the different social dimensions, which are equity, health, workforce and public engagement. It is also able to explore the critical role of other actors besides the federal government, like cities, states and tribes.

Q: The report mentions the potential for the United States to be a real leader in a world-wide decarbonization effort. What are some examples we’ve seen from the U.S. providing this kind of leadership? 

A: The biggest one is the new climate and energy policies that have been adopted by Congress and the Biden administration. These are precedent-setting, worldwide and make the possibility of the U.S. achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 much more plausible and realistic. The sheer scale of anticipated federal spending is enormous. The U.S. is also demonstrating major leadership in making sure that the transition to future energy systems is just and equitable, for example, through spending to help make sure that low-income and disadvantaged communities are not left behind, and to address the inevitable workforce transitions that will happen within the energy industry. The U.S. is also investing in new energy technologies that, while too costly today to make much difference, will be crucial in 15–20 years when we get to the midtransition and to deep decarbonization.

Q: Where are some areas that the U.S. could set a better example? Why have leaders struggled in these areas? 

A: These are really the heart of this second report: the gaps that remain and the recommendations to fill them. We recommend, for example, that the U.S. adopt a wider policy portfolio. The vast majority of the policy instruments employed in current climate and energy legislation are spending mechanisms: federal investments in new transmission, new technologies like hydrogen, for example. There are also tax credits. While federal spending is crucial, not all problems can be addressed with money. We also recommend, for example, that the U.S. put a price on carbon, that we adopt processes for planning and tracking emissions reductions that could guide adaptive management, that Congress enshrine Justice40 as law and that the U.S. adopt more stringent codes for buildings and industry.

Q: The report provides a series of suggestions to government, nonprofit, and private-sector actors. How important is it that actions are implemented across all of these sectors? In what sector, if any, do you see the greatest opportunity for growth? 

A: Getting to net-zero emissions by 2050 will require a whole-of-society and whole-of-the-economy effort. So we made recommendations for states, cities and other local governments, tribes, philanthropic organizations and the private sector.

Chapter five of the report, on public engagement, notes that every household and every business in the U.S. has a role to play in adopting new clean energy technologies, like electric vehicles and heat pumps, and in adapting their routines and practices to these new technologies. Chapter 13 highlights the importance of states and localities in getting the work of an energy transition done. While the federal government can make money available, for example, to retrofit old buildings in low-income communities with new energy technologies, each state will need to figure out how to implement those programs and make them work locally. Chapters on the electricity, buildings, industrial, transportation and financial sectors all point out the key role that private-sector organizations will have to play in manufacturing, financing and adopting clean energy technologies and strategies.

In the end, I think that the biggest area for growth remains the people of the U.S. Most U.S. households and small businesses aren’t yet participating in the green energy revolution, and eventually everyone will need to. Fortunately, that’s changing fast. Electric vehicle sales are rising rapidly, for example, and are now 10% of U.S. new vehicle sales. But it’s critical that we make adopting these technologies affordable and available for all — and that we figure out how to make these technologies work for everyone, too.

Q: Decarbonization on a massive scale is a new adventure for humanity. Given its unprecedented nature, what are some of the risks you project in the transition?   

A: Current policies are projected to rapidly accelerate U.S. clean energy deployment. As both the previous and current report make clear, the depth and pace of change has the potential to be disruptive to communities and workers around the country and the world. In response, this report reiterates a recommendation that the U.S. significantly strengthen its capacity for regional transition planning to help navigate the complexity of changes. 

One area where planning is critical is in managing industry closures. As we know in Arizona, communities that are dependent on coal mining and coal-fired power plants are facing the loss of those facilities. The report’s chapters on workforces and the fossil fuel sector make clear that, if the U.S. achieves a net-zero transition by 2050, jobs in the fossil fuel industry will significantly contract in many parts of the country after 2030. And loss of industries doesn’t just affect jobs; communities often also suffer significant reductions in public finances that impact schools, health care facilities, first responders and other community support functions. Local, state, tribal and federal leaders need to prioritize making sure that impacted communities have the economic and financial ability and support to get through the transition — and broader publics need to support those efforts.

The report also notes that the infrastructure transformation will be extensive, involving both the abandonment of existing infrastructures and the construction of extensive new infrastructures like solar and wind power plants, transmission lines, mining for critical clean energy minerals, and pipelines for hydrogen or carbon sequestration. The report recommends adopting strategies to help communities address both legacy environmental risks from existing energy systems and, proactively, to empower neighboring communities to participate more effectively in and benefit from the siting of new clean energy power plants or transmission lines. 

Q: For those who are not familiar with the benefits of decarbonization, can you give a few specific examples of how decarbonization efforts could benefit people on a day-to-day level? 

A: The benefits of decarbonization for people are going to be felt every day and are very significant. First, decarbonization will significantly reduce the risks of climate change, which are growing everywhere. Second, many people will benefit from reductions in energy costs. Third, the report notes that the total number of energy jobs will grow significantly as a result of decarbonization, especially in manufacturing. Finally, the report highlights the major improvements in air quality that will come from decarbonization, especially through the closure of coal-fired power plants and the adoption of electric vehicles. That will translate into significantly improved health outcomes.

Q: The report mainly focuses on the U.S. What would be some of the barriers to scale the recommendations globally? 

A: The real challenge of decarbonization is the steep upfront cost of investing in clean energy technologies. Almost all of the cost of solar, wind and batteries, for example, comes in buying the equipment. After that, they produce energy basically for free. We’re used to buying energy differently, a little bit at a time, buying a few gallons of gas each week, for example. The U.S. is a very wealthy country, by comparison to much of the world. Other wealthy countries like Europe are making very similar investments to us. But in places like Africa, South Asia and Latin America, the high upfront costs are a steep barrier. We need to find ways for less wealthy countries — and less wealthy communities in the U.S. — to make investments upfront.

Q: How does the work you are doing at ASU relate to/fit in with some of the recommendations in the report? 

A: The ASU Center for Energy and Society is a community of faculty and students from all over campus who are focused on putting people at the center of the clean energy transition. We have four big themes. The first is energy futures. What kinds of future energy systems are possible? What are the advantages and disadvantages of different energy futures and different ways of getting there? Who benefits and who loses if we take different paths? 

Our second theme is helping organizations understand and navigate the complex human challenges of just and sustainable energy transitions. From a people perspective, values and behavior, work and organizations are all going to change. How do we do that? How do we make decision-making democratic? How do we make outcomes fair and equitable? 

Our third theme is energy justice. The world will spend $100 trillion — and perhaps more — to get a clean energy future. How do we make that investment do more than just build a cleaner energy system? How can we also use it to create a better and more inclusive human and planetary future? 

Finally, we’re theorists of the human and social dimensions of energy transitions. People are incredibly important parts of energy systems, but there’s remarkably little research in this area. As humanity works our way through the deep societal and economic transformations that are part of clean energy transitions, better theories will be essential to knowing what’s happening and helping make sure we achieve what we’re hoping to achieve.

Top photo courtesy Shutterstock

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