It’s official: last year was the hottest year on record. At the recent COP28 climate summit in Dubai, most countries agreed to “transition away from fossil fuels” to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that drive climate change. Their agreement also called for tripling renewable energy capacity, doubling energy efficiency improvements by 2030, and phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. But there are gaps between the goals set by countries and actual emission reductions.
For the past year, I have coled Visualizing Energy, a project based at Boston University’s Institute for Global Sustainability that uses data visualizations and storytelling to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, equitable clean energy system. One consistent theme we’ve found: there are substantial steps the US needs to take to realize our climate goals. There are misalignments between words and actions that are difficult to reconcile as countries agree to transition away from fossil fuels. Our data stories and visualizations show how far we’ve come and where we need to go.
Emission reductions on the international scale are voluntary. At 2015’s COP21 in Paris, each country agreed to submit a nonbinding climate action plan that was consistent with a global goal to limit the increase in the planet’s average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The US has committed to a 50 percent reduction in net GHG emissions by 2030, relative to 2005 levels, with an additional goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and 100 percent clean electricity by 2035.
We’ve been making progress toward those goals. GHG emissions in the US declined 16 percent from their peak in 2007 through 2021. Energy efficiency improved in transportation, industry, and households, and there was a shift to low-carbon sources of energy. State and federal energy policies encouraged or required some of these changes. The economic downturns caused by the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic also prompted pronounced downturns in energy use and GHG emissions.
Decarbonization is moving at a rapid pace in the electric power sector. Coal generated about 50 percent of the nation’s electricity in 1920, dominating the energy market for eight consecutive decades. Wind and solar power are now growing the fastest thanks to their dramatic cost decline and favorable state and federal policies.
But there are strong countercurrents to this progress. Fracking—although reversing the country’s historic dependence on imported oil—has pushed domestic oil and gas production to record levels, driving new investment in oil pipelines and liquefied natural gas export terminals. In the mid-2010s, natural gas displaced coal in the electricity generation top spot.
Critics rightfully question whether large investments in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure are consistent with the country’s stated emissions targets. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in 2022 allocated historic levels of public funding to clean energy. But the IRA also mandates new oil and gas lease sales on federal lands and waters, and ties new lease sales for wind and solar to new lease sales for oil and gas. The Biden administration—like others before it—has had little success passing laws allied with its climate goals through a divided Congress.
Independent analysis indicates that even after accounting for the massive funding for clean energy in the IRA, reaching the 50 percent reduction target will require bold new federal and subnational regulations for new power plants and clean vehicles. Even if new regulations are enacted, the effectiveness of this unprecedented policy action and public support could be undermined if Russia’s war in Ukraine or the conflict in the Middle East continue to disrupt global energy markets and energy supply chains.
Despite the landmark agreements made in Dubai last year, the stars must align in historic fashion for the US to reach its climate goals and assume its planetary responsibility as the all-time leader in greenhouse gas emissions.
Government leaders and regulators must act swiftly and decisively to have a shot at acting in time. They can start with actions with big payoffs: remove regulatory barriers to the siting of clean energy infrastructure, such as offshore wind and new electricity transmission; eliminate government subsidies that tilt the market toward fossil fuels; and require public spending to ensure that historically underserved communities have access to energy efficiency, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, and other clean energy services. I, and other experts, believe there is still time, but the deadlines are right around the corner.
Cutler J. Cleveland is the associate director of the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of Earth and environment. He is the founder and coleader of Visualizing Energy, an open-access, interdisciplinary science communication project that aims to increase actionable knowledge about a sustainable and just energy transition.
Heather Clifford is coleader and chief data scientist of Visualizing Energy.
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