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Opinion We could cut carbon emissions tomorrow — if we really wanted to

A U.S. flag flies Aug. 7 at a fire station destroyed in the Dixie Fire in Greenville, Calif. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)
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To understand the tension in the United States’ energy policy, consider the events of this week. On Monday, the United Nations released a new report warning that climate change is coming faster than predicted and that the world is losing time to act. President Biden tweeted in response, “We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis.” Two days later, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, urged Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers to increase production of petroleum beyond the agreed-upon targets. Biden backed him up. The Financial Times wrote this headline: “Biden to OPEC: Drill, baby, drill.”

America’s energy policy reflects one of the oldest attitudes in human history. As Saint Augustine once prayed to God, “Make me chaste and celibate — but not yet.”

The White House this week illustrated the central reason U.S. energy policy is failing. It promises that we can get to a carbon-free future without imposing real costs on the American people, and without having to make some very difficult trade-offs.

Let’s start by recognizing some basic facts. In 1990, fossil fuels made up about 85 percent of U.S. energy consumption. That number today? Around 80 percent. And according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2050, under current policy, that percentage will have dropped to about 75 percent.

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The reasons for this are not simply that oil companies are influential. Fossil fuels are amazingly abundant and versatile. They are powerful and portable, providing energy whenever and wherever it’s needed. That is why we use fossil fuels to run our cars, power our factories, cook our food and heat our homes. Plus, we use them to make everything from plastics to textiles to aspirin.

This is not an argument to do nothing. On the contrary, it’s an argument to do much more. The only rational way to lower the use of fossil fuels in all of these varied applications is to make them all more expensive. That means a carbon tax, so that everything that emits greenhouse gases becomes more expensive and everything that is clean becomes more affordable.

But that’s not enough. We keep proclaiming lofty climate goals and yet never meet them. In 2015, President Barack Obama announced targets for reducing U.S. emissions by 2025. Many regarded those goals as not nearly ambitious enough. Thanks to President Donald Trump, we are not on track to achieve them. Now Biden has set even more ambitious goals.

The biggest problem in U.S. energy policy is climate denialism from the right. But on the left, there is another potent danger: magical thinking. Too many believe we can lower emissions with no hard choices.

The University of California at Berkeley released a report last year that says we could feasibly get to a 90 percent clean electricity grid by 2035, reducing coal consumption to zero and natural gas by 70 percent. But note — that wildly optimistic scenario is based on the assumption that the United States would quickly and massively upgrade its power grid to become smart and responsive, build new transmission lines, expand storage dramatically, and change the way power systems operate across the 50 states. In reality, just building a single new transmission line has often proved an impossible task. One recent effort to build lines from renewable energy projects to population centers collapsed after 10 years of battles over permits. There is another continuing battle over a line to bring Canadian hydropower into New England.

We should continue to subsidize renewables. We should fund new technologies — from hydrogen fuel to electricity storage — that, in a decade or two, might prove extremely effective substitutes for fossil fuels. There are ways to expedite upgrading the grid. But meanwhile, we need to reduce emissions sharply, and now. Here’s what we could do right away.

First, stop retiring nuclear power plants and start building new ones. Nuclear power is a zero-emissions fuel that is always on.

Second, we need to get coal — the dirtiest fuel — from 20 percent of our electricity supply down to zero. Where possible, we should replace it with wind, solar or biomass. But the easiest, quickest way will often be to use natural gas, which still produces half the carbon emissions. We should also get the developing world to stop building coal-fired plants, many of them Chinese-sponsored, and instead help them build power plants to run on U.S. natural gas.

Third, electric cars have come of age and can replace internal combustion vehicles, and we should speed this transition by building out thousands of charging stations.

Fourth, industry releases about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and is hard to decarbonize. (Very high heat is often needed, and some chemical processes unavoidably release carbon dioxide.) So we should require the use of currently available carbon-capture technologies, including a massive expansion of the oldest one we know of: trees.

Yes, I know there are problems with all of these approaches, but there are problems with every solution. (Producing solar energy on an industrial scale requires massive use of plastics, i.e. petrochemicals, as well as the mining of many raw materials, including scarce minerals.) But the actions I describe here would all cut emissions tomorrow. Not 10 years from now, and not after development and research. Tomorrow.

So the question really is this: Do we want to cut carbon emissions tomorrow?