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Strategy Versus Evolution

Reaching President Obama’s CO2 emissions goal for 2050 will require strategic planning

Alex Pavlak

The Challenge Defined

2010-11MacroPavlakFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe figure at right shows actual CO2 emissions in the United States in 2005, the reference date for President Obama’s strategic emissions goal. The first three bars indicate the amount of CO2 emitted by electricity generation, motor transport and everything else. The red bar indicates the 2050 goal for CO2 emissions, which is 17 percent of the 2005 total, an 83% reduction.

The fossil-fuel sources are divided among coal, natural gas and petroleum. The “everything else” bar separates residential and commercial heating from other applications. The heating contribution can be shifted to electricity fairly easily when we create a source of clean power. The rest of the “everything else” bar indicates CO2 emissions from a mix of gas, petroleum and coal used for difficult-to-reduce, high-value applications such as industrial and chemical processes, metallurgical coal, lubricants and petroleum-based fuel for aircraft and ships.

Electricity plus motor transport accounted for 73 percent of total CO2 emissions in 2005. Adding natural gas used by the residential and commercial sectors increases the amount to 79 percent, within 4 percent of the amount that the 2050 goal intends to eliminate. A zero-carbon power grid should allow us to substantially eliminate natural-gas emissions from spaceheating. And a variety of other technologies, such as cleaner-than-petroleum biofuels, should enable us to push emissions reduction from 79 percent to 83 percent.

The lesson of the figure is this: An 83-percent reduction in CO2 emissions is feasible if we can create a zero-carbon electric-power grid and a zero-carbon motor vehicle fuel, with additional controls on remaining sources of emissions. Conversely, we can hardly hope to achieve an 83-percent reduction without zero-carbon electric power and a zero-carbon motor vehicle fuel.

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