During an RCGI presentation, Princeton engineer and researcher Eric Larson evaluates that the goal is feasible and shows the impacts of the several possible choices. Study modeling will likely be replicated in Brazil
There are at least five feasible technological pathways for the United States to achieve, by 2050, net zero greenhouse gas emissions, which are responsible for global warming – as pointed out in a study led by researchers from Princeton University, whose first results came out in December 2020. The wide-ranging study, called “Net-Zero America”, lays out different scenarios and shows details regarding the infrastructure needed, the possible bottlenecks, and the impacts of each one on public health and employment, for instance. “We intentionally drew up five different pathways, in order to understand the implications of one pathway versus another. We have no favorite. All of the pathways lead to the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050,” stated engineer Eric Larson, of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, on Thursday, February 11, who is one of the co-founding researchers of the study, during an online presentation promoted by the FAPESP Shell Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI). “The plan is to provide information for the discussions that must be held in our country regarding the best direction to take,” Larson said.
He says that the differential of this study performed by 18 researchers over a period of two years is the geographical information on important areas for the transition to a new model and on the communities most affected by the decisions and their needs. “In this way, it is clearer for people to understand what net-zero emissions means,” Larson stated. “In the United States, today, our energy system is dominated by fossil fuels; in the future, within a business-as-usual scenario, if there are no political measures taken for decarbonization, we will end up with a mix that is very similar to what we now have.” But the political winds, with the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States, point towards change and, thus, the report of Princeton University has come into the spotlight of even the mainstream press. Twelve American states have already promised net-zero emissions by 2050.
Among the paths indicated by the study, two foresee a high rate of electrification of vehicles and buildings and three consider less electrification. One of them considers the heavy use of biomass as an energy source; this most “restrictive” of all the scenarios provides for an energy system exclusively comprising renewable sources, formed from wind, solar and biomass – without the contributing factor of nuclear energy or the underground storage of CO2. Four of the scenarios provide for sequestering carbon in 2050, that is, the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere – because petroleum and natural gas would still be used as an energy source, although in smaller proportions than the current ones. “In the fifth scenario, we do not allow for the sequestering of CO2, but we provide for the capture and use of carbon, mainly to produce synthetic liquid fuel, since we would not authorize the used of petroleum as a liquid fuel.”
Larson points out that one important finding of the study is that the annual costs of energy in the models provided, in terms of the projected Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are in fact lower than historic amounts or compared with today. “In 2020, our energy cost represented about 5% of the GDP and all of our scenarios are within the range of 5% to 6% of the GDP,” Larson said. “The finding here is that the transition is accessible, if we do it right; but to achieve that, big changes are needed.”
The report identifies six central pillars for decarbonization – found in all five of the scenarios laid out. Four are a part of the industrial and energy sectors. The list also includes the reducing non-CO2 emissions, like methane and fluorocarbons, and reinforcing land sinks, with the growth of forests and with agricultural practices that include environmental conservation measures. “The first pillar covers electrification and energy efficiency. This reduces the total amount of energy that we need, and electrification changes the use of fuel power to electricity, which is generally easier to decarbonate. But we need clean electricity and that is the second pillar, with wind and solar, new transmission lines and technologies that compensate the variable nature of solar and wind power generation.”
To pursue this goal, changes must be made now, as shown by the study. Among the priority actions to be taken by 2030 are to put into circulation approximately 50 million electric cars on the country’s roads and to install at least three million public recharging stations, as well as increase transmission systems by 60%, coming from wind power farms. Regarding the cumulative benefits for improving air quality between 2020 and 2050, based on the changes, the researchers estimate from 200,000 to 300,000 premature deaths will be avoided.
Larson stressed that one of the biggest challenges for net-zero emissions will be to obtain what is called a “social license”, which is acceptance by the population, in general, of the large impacts on the land use of greater renewable electrical generation and the construction of transmission lines. “The financial cost is not the biggest challenge but, rather, the social license,” the engineer and researcher says. “Objections are already being raised regarding the building of pipelines, of high voltage transmission lines, the construction of wind power farms in the ocean and on the continent, and the storage of CO2; some parts of society will contest each of the pillars, in one way or another. It is exceedingly easy to say that one wants solar and wind power, but to do that on the necessary scale for achieving net-zero emissions implies a huge impact that perhaps people do not appreciate very much.” Therefore, maybe the scenarios that do not depend as much on solar and wind power are more likely to happen, the researcher said. “But I do not have a crystal ball, neither the answers regarding what should be done; it is the people who will collectively make that decision.”
At the close of the event, Professor Julio Meneghini, Scientific Director of the RCGI, stated that the research center, which is headquartered in the University of São Paulo (USP) is forming a group and planning to perform a study, along these same lines of Net-Zero America, to analyze what is specific to Brazil. “I hope that over the coming weeks and months we will meet with this specific group and we will work with you [of Princeton University] on a report regarding Brazil’s case,” Meneghini stated. “It will be fabulous for Brazil to have a study and analysis with this degree of details, because it helps move the conversation forward; I am anxious to be a part of this,” Larson said.
The online lecture by researcher Eric Larson, of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment of Princeton University, in the United States, is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBLHGqmcMg4. The 345-page report can be read at Princeton_NZA_Interim_Report_15_Dec_2020_FINAL.pdf.