2021 Was a Huge Missed Opportunity on Climate Action

This year, the US took at least a step toward the future of renewables. In November, Congress finally passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill , of which some $154 billion is to fund climate programs. It allocates money for updating our ancient, busted grid ; puts $7.5 billion toward a vast network of chargers to power electric vehicles; will expand access to clean drinking water; and funds investments in research hubs for clean energy technologies like advanced nuclear reactors.Think of this kind of government spending like an investment in the economy and in public health. “There’s literature saying that renewables can potentially actually create more jobs than fossil fuels,” says Sha Yu, a senior scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who studies climate change. We’re talking five times the number of jobs in the green energy sector by 2050, according to one international team of scientists. “And, clearly it has the benefits of improving air quality in different regions,” Yu continues. “So it's a low-hanging fruit that is cost-effective, but it also creates additional co-benefits for the overall society.”Yet that's just the first step in a very long journey that's barely begun. If the United States is going to hit Biden’s goal of going net-zero by the year 2050—meaning both reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and pulling them out of the atmosphere —the nation will need to reduce emissions 8 percent per year, every year. But when you turn on your lights in the US in the year 2021, there’s still an 80 percent chance the energy is coming from fossil fuels. And since the average car in America lasts 16 years, a whole lot of carbon-spewing vehicles are going to be zooming around for years to come. “In fact,” Paul argues of the infrastructure bill, which allocates over $100 billion to fix roads, bridges, and highways, “massive investments in roads will continue to support our vehicle-dependent culture, and will really limit the transition into a more sustainable transportation economy.”Image may contain: Universe, Space, Astronomy, Outer Space, Planet, Night, Outdoors, Moon, and Nature

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One of the roadblocks is that the US can’t fully shift to renewables until the national grid gets fixed. (Technically, it’s three grids: one for the East, one for the West, and one for Texas .) The main challenge is intermittency : The sun doesn’t always shine on solar panels in the Southwest, and wind doesn’t always blow turbines in the Midwest. Ideally, a unified grid would allow the sharing of energy across the whole country to port it to wherever it’s needed. But that isn’t possible yet. A secondary problem is that the system isn’t ready for the spike in demand from an increasing number of EVs plugging into it . “Our electricity grid is just in urgent need of modernization,” says Paul. The government needs to invest tens of billions of dollars a year in the grid for many years to come, Paul says, but the infrastructure bill allocates $65 billion once. “So we're talking about really pennies on the dollar.”Modernizing the grid to accommodate renewables requires big structural changes, and that's going to take time. But not everything will. “There are things that can cut emissions very quickly, like [addressing] methane leaks from the oil and gas industry,” says Jonathan Foley, executive director of the nonprofit Project Drawdown, which advocates for climate action. “Just go out and plug the leaks. There's no infrastructure required, just money and wrenches.” Methane is 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, but it also disappears from the atmosphere much more quickly; if you stop producing it, you see a rapid response in the climate.