We Can Beat Climate Change If We Do One Thing Fast
Increasing numbers of people around the globe are now convinced that global warming is real and heating up faster than expected. This will have irreversible consequences. People feel helpless and despair at the sight of dire predictions. And yet, I’m optimistic that we can solve this problem in time to keep our planet livable for future generations.
It is important to remain optimistic. I’m the father of young children and I want them to not only survive what humanity has done to our planet, but experience the awe of the natural world that I enjoyed as a child. But I’m also a scientist, and I approach the problem like an engineer. Is there anything we can do to combat global warming. Is it possible to achieve this goal in time?
Squinting at the data, I see a way forward, but the urgency can’t be underestimated. There is no magic technology required to find the solution. The goal of electrifying everything must be simple. That means not just the supply-side sources of energy; we’ve got to electrify everything on the demand-side—the things we use in our households and small businesses every day, including cars, furnaces, stoves, water heaters, and dryers. I’m optimistic because over the last two decades the advances and cost reductions in electric vehicles, solar cells, batteries, heat pumps, and induction cooking mean that what we need can now be purchased at roughly price parity with the fossil fuelled incumbent.
However, we’re not there yet. Only half the heating systems that will be installed in the United States by 2020 will use electric heat. Electricity was only 2 percent of all vehicle sales. We need a massive, World War Two Arsenal-of-Democracy-style mobilization to get these clean machines manufactured and into our homes and onto our roads. For the production of additional electricity we will need the same effort in the supply area with the wind turbines, the solar farms and the hydroelectric, geothermal, and nuclear facilities.
You have many reasons to be pessimistic regarding the climate. The United Nations COP26 conference was meant to speed up plans to combat climate change. However, world leaders have made weak and insufficient commitments to maintain the global temperature at 1.5 degree Celsius or 2.7 degree Fahrenheit. It’s the 26th time world governments have met on the issues, and still the commitments going into this meeting are for close to 3 degrees (C) of heating. This is our last chance at maintaining livable temperatures around the globe. We start in 2021.
People who are relying on governments to solve this problem don’t understand the power they have in their own hands and homes to fight global warming.
Over several years, I have worked with the Department of Energy to understand and map our energy use, and I’ve used that detailed data to analyze our carbon emissions and what we’ll need to change to stay under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change goal of 1.5 to 2 degrees warming from pre-industrial levels. Rewiring America, the non-profit think tank I co-founded that supports widespread electrification to fight climate change and create jobs, determined that, in the U.S., 42% of our carbon emissions come from our homes and personal vehicles—our fossil-fuel-burning cars, stoves, heaters, water heaters, clothes dryers, barbecues, and other appliances. This number jumps to 65 percent if you add small businesses and office fleets as well as commercial vehicles. All the machines we use in our daily lives would be electrified using renewable energy. We’d also reduce almost half of our greenhouse gas emissions.
When we electrify all things, one amazing thing happens: Only half of what is currently required for the energy to run the economy would be needed. We can achieve the same efficiency as we’ve strived for during these 50 years with electrification.
It is good for you to electrify things that affect climate. Our homes and communities will have cleaner air, cars and air quality, and appliances that are faster and more advanced than rotary phones. Imagine the electrified future.
It will take a lot of effort to accomplish all this. To meet climate goals we need to have a 100 percent adoption of electrified technology starting at our homes. In other words, in order to achieve the 1.5- or 2 degree warming targets, every American household must replace every old fossil fuel-burning appliance with an electric model within ten years. That doesn’t mean replacing everything in your home at once—which would cost the average homeowner in the U.S. about $70,000. However, it means that electric cars are the future. An induction stove is the best choice for our next stove. It cooks more effectively, and has more accurate temperature settings than a traditional gas stove. Heat pumps are a highly efficient technology that will replace our space and water heaters. In order to make the switch, we will likely have to upgrade our breaker box so it’ll be ready when your water heater goes out and you need a new one tomorrow. It applies to single-family homes as well as multi-family rental properties. The same applies to new construction. This is true regardless of the size or location of the house, nor who occupies it. To heal, it needs one billion more machines to power our driveways, basements, utility closets garages, kitchens, bathrooms, and utility rooms.
This is a WWII-scale mobilization. It’s because it has the enormity of the job and the opportunities for America. Millions of people will need new jobs to manufacture, maintain, and install these new machines in order for them to transition. These are jobs that can’t be outsourced because no one in China can install solar on your roof. These are the jobs that will make America once again the world’s leader. We need so many machines that we can only imagine the number of others needed by the world.
As the Greatest Generation, it was the generation that won WWII. This task is now on their shoulders. Wall Street and the government will continue to support this most grand generation. Modern electric machines still have higher initial costs than fossil-fueled counterparts. But they are more cost-effective in the long term. An average U.S. home with an electrified system could reduce its energy bill by $1000-2500 annually. Point-of-sale rebates and upstream incentives are needed to ensure that these machines can be financially sustainable and help us achieve our goal. It doesn’t solve the problem to have only the wealthy installing solar panels on their roofs and Teslas in their garages. You can’t half solve climate change, you need to make the solutions affordable to everyone regardless of the level of household income.
Over the last few weeks there has been an incredible level of cooperation between the White House and Congress on climate investments. $6 billion was allocated to the Zero-Emission Homes Act policies. It offers rebates for appliances at the point-of-sale, making electrification economically feasible for American families. Together with the Center for American Progress, we projected that up to $265 billion over the decade is what’s needed to not miss the moment to electrify and wean a house off gas when a furnace or other fossil-fueled machine fails.
Six billion isn’t enough. But it’s a start. And the rebates have an extra focus on low- and moderate-income households—so no American should be left behind in this heat pump and induction cooktop revolution. Combine tax credit for the same equipment with $29Billion in low cost financing and grants through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.(*()It will be the U.S. Congress’ first move to give the American people the ability to take a major role in addressing climate change. Some people don’t have rooftop solar or EVs. However, we have furnaces as well as stoves.It turns out, when it comes to climate, the household is where collective and individual action meet. I’m hopeful that individual property owners will take the concern they’ve spent on recycling, eating less meat, and driving less to make a far more significant impact on our carbon emissions by simply replacing their gas appliances with electric ones. Washington must support this effort as it is both a moral imperative, and economic commonsense. We must all unite and work together to find the best way to save our planet.
I’m optimistic because we’ve done it before. And, well, we can’t afford to fail.