Column: U.S. net zero goal implies energy system transformation

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LONDON, April 21 (Reuters) - If U.S. policymakers want to reduce energy-related emissions faster and deeper to achieve the Biden administration’s stated objective of net zero by 2050, they will need much more profound changes than have occurred so far in the energy system.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, annual energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States had already fallen 14% from their peak in 2007.

But most of the reduction had come from the replacement of coal by gas and to a lesser extent wind and solar in electricity generation; there had been few meaningful reductions in other parts of the energy system.

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Energy-related emissions amounted to 5.14 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2019, down from 6.00 billion in 2007, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Emissions declined at a compound annual rate of 1.3% between 2007 and 2019 (“Monthly energy review”, U.S. Energy Information Administration, March 25).

CO2 emitted from coal combustion fell by 1.1 billion tonnes, accounting for almost the entire reduction in energy-related emissions (

There were only small reductions attributable to heavy fuel oil (-81 million tonnes), gasoline (-71 million), diesel (-35 million) and petroleum coke (-29 million), while emissions from both gas (+440 million tonnes) and jet fuel (+18 million) actually increased.


Since 2007, the reduction in energy-related emissions has been almost entirely due to the displacement of coal by lower-emitting gas-fired generation and to a lesser extent by zero emission wind and solar farms.

Total electric generation was broadly flat, but generation from coal fell by 52% or 1,051 billion kilowatt-hours per year.

Two-thirds of the lost coal-fired generation was replaced by gas (+689 billion kilowatt-hours) with the rest met by increased output from wind (+261 billion kilowatt-hours) and solar (+71 billion kilowatt-hours).

As a result, total emissions attributable to electricity generation declined by 807 million tonnes of CO2 per year (-33%) between 2007 and 2019.

By contrast, emissions from the rest of the energy system, including transport fuels and the direct combustion of oil and gas for heating homes and offices and running factories, decreased by just 58 million tonnes (-2%).


Before the epidemic, there were still roughly 1.1 billion tonnes of annual CO2 emissions coming from coal-fired power plants, so there is still scope to reduce emissions by retiring more coal plants.

But even if all the coal-fired units were closed, annual emissions would still be more than 4.1 billion tonnes per year – or more if some coal units are replaced by gas-fired units rather than wind and solar.

The Biden administration’s goal of net zero by 2050 would therefore only be possible through much more profound and disruptive changes in the energy system than have occurred over the last decade.

Net zero implies some combination of carbon capture and storage; a more limited share for gas in future power generation; and broad electrification of sectors of the economy that still burn oil and gas directly.

Nothing like this has been achieved so far. Changes to date have all occurred within the power sector’s generation mix, rather than across the boundary between the power sector and the rest of the energy system.

Faster and deeper reductions in energy-related emissions are possible over the next two decades, but they would require profound structural changes in the whole energy system, not just an extension of existing trends.

Related columns:

- Global CO2 emissions far off net-zero trajectory (Reuters, April 12) read more

- Electricity access and climate change (Reuters, Dec. 15, 2019)

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Editing by Kirsten Donovan

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