(Bloomberg) — At his Earth Day climate summit, President Joe Biden made official what had been expected for weeks: The U.S. would pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels by 2030.
Up until then, the White House’s strategy of linking climate change mitigation to job growth—a theme Biden repeated in his first address to Congress last week—had generated minimal drama. But as soon as the number became public, suddenly it was the end of American life as we know it.
People went berserk in predictable ways. The claims about the pledge ranged from the outrageous—a Daily Mail article asserting that Americans could be forced to spend $55,000 on electric vehicles and only be allowed one hamburger per month, which was then picked up by Fox News, leading to a public correction—to the merely inaccurate.
While no one should underplay how much change needs to occur to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in the next decade, it’s also important not to overplay the difficulty of getting there. “These reductions can be met with technologies that are tried and true,” said Dan Lashof, the U.S. director of the World Resources Institute, who has also been pushing back against naysayers on Twitter. “It is ambitious, but it’s not something that will turn people’s world upside down.”
For starters, a lot of the work has already been done. “We basically have spent the last decade bringing forth the technologies to decarbonize power, vehicles and light trucking,” explained Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton University engineering professor who studies energy systems. “Those can deliver the bulk of the emission reductions over the next decade.” Just retiring the remainder of U.S. coal plants, he said, would account for nearly 1 billion annual tons of carbon emissions, or almost 17% of total 2019 U.S. greenhouse emissions. Most of these plants are nearing the end of their lives and will have to be replaced regardless.
Other important transformations most Americans won’t even notice. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to issue a new proposed rule in September setting stricter limits on methane emissions, Administrator Michael Regan told a House committee last week, just one day after the Senate voted to reinstate methane rules dumped by the Trump administration. Methane—the primary component of natural gas—is a juicy target for the administration because it’s both extremely potent and shorter-lasting than carbon dioxide, meaning that the effects of cutting emissions will be felt more immediately. New satellite technology is making it easier to spot methane leaks from gas pipelines, which is fine with gas companies, which would rather make money off it than release it into the air for free.
What about EVs, you ask? It’s true that ideally half of all cars sold in the U.S. will be electric by 2030. Still, this emphatically does not mean that the government will start forcing people to buy luxury Teslas. For one, there are now several EVs on the market for less than $40,000, which by many life-cycle assessments means they’re already cheaper than your average new car since EV owners don’t pay for gas. Tax rebates make them cheaper still. Meanwhile, the costs of EV batteries has declined 90% in the last decade and is still going down, which means that electric cars could soon be on par with or cheaper than traditional engines just based on the sticker price.
OK, but now the real question: Will we have to give up hamburgers? Nothing in Biden’s plan mentions curtailing beef consumption. Yes, there will be changes to agriculture policy, but in the short term, these will likely look more like incentives for farmers to plant trees at the edges of their properties—kind of a win-win for everyone.
I myself have dramatically reduced my beef consumption for climate reasons. Feel free to join me—it’ll make hitting our emissions goals easier—but to be clear, you don’t have to. “Some people may choose to do that, but is a 100% voluntary consumer choice,” said Lashof. “We can meet the target without it.”