How the US Can Speed its Shift to Climate-Smart Infrastructure
To make the necessary transformations to keep global warming in check, we are going to need to build a lot of infrastructure — and do it very quickly. Photo by RoschetzkylstockPhoto/iStock

The latest findings from the IPCC paint a grim picture: Despite some signs of progress, the world’s chance of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) is shrinking — and with it, our ability to prevent the most dangerous climate impacts. The goal is still within reach if global emissions peak within the next few years and then decline rapidly to net zero by mid-century. But this is only possible if there is a massive scale up of investments to transform our energy, transport and food systems.

In the United States, President Biden has set ambitious goals consistent with the IPCC’s findings: cut emissions in half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. But will the country act fast enough to meet this timeline?

One thing is clear: To make the necessary transformations to keep global warming in check, we are going to need to build a lot of infrastructure — everything from high-voltage transmission lines to solar rooftops — and do it very quickly. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law enacted in 2021 can energize this process, but more will be needed through a budget reconciliation package.

Ramping up implementation this year is key to ensure that funding is spent smartly to deliver for the climate and all Americans. To make this a reality, there are many things we need to do at once.

First, we must empower communities to engage in decision-making around clean energy infrastructure and access federal climate funding from the get-go.

It’s clear that overall, the transition to a net-zero economy will bring immense benefits for people, such as improving air quality in some of the country’s most polluted areas (which are disproportionately populated by people of color). However, there will also be challenges as fossil fuel-related jobs decline and are replaced by clean energy jobs that may not be in the same location or require the same skill set. Increasing community engagement is key to ensure that we build the right things in the right places in a way that enhances equity rather than perpetuating historic patterns of injustice. We must find ways to speed up siting and permitting of climate-smart infrastructure while simultaneously enhancing community engagement.

Second, we must build robust clean energy transmission and distribution systems that are as flexible as possible.

President Biden set a goal of zero emissions from the U.S. electricity system by 2035. That can be achieved with a grid led by solar and wind that integrates storage, along with sources of clean firm power (such as nuclear, hydropower, natural gas with carbon capture, and/or hydrogen turbines). In addition to being capable of transmitting rising amounts of renewable energy, these systems must be resilient to the increasingly extreme weather that climate change brings.

To supercharge this construction, the United States can start by capitalizing on existing and underutilized “rights of way” and underground high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines that are efficient, less of an eyesore than above-ground power lines, and more protected from wildfires, storms and other extreme weather that often cause outages. Take, for example, an innovative transmission project proposing to bring Iowa’s abundant wind energy to Chicago via a reliable, underground HVDC transmission line built along existing railroad rights of way.

Third, we must expand access to electric vehicles (EVs) and charging infrastructure in conjunction with other clean transportation options, including safe routes for walking and biking.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and diesel exhaust from trucks and buses is a major public health hazard. EVs are a key component of decarbonizing transportation and will help alleviate the pain at the pump Americans are feeling in the wake of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Adoption is dependent on making the vehicles more affordable and charging infrastructure easily available. Most early EV adopters can charge at home, but public charging is needed for road trips and for residents of multi-family housing with limited charging access. One study found that less than 10% of Americans in cities have easy access to public charging, with lower-income and Black and Hispanic/Latino communities having particularly limited access.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes a $5 billion formula grant program to states to build public EV charging infrastructure along the interstate highway system and in underserved communities; an additional $2.5 billion will be made available through a competitive grant program. These investments will significantly accelerate the transition to EVs, but they are only a fraction of what is needed to support a fully electrified fleet. State and private investments must supplement federal funding, and charging stations must be efficiently and equitably permitted and built. Electric utilities (which stand to gain business from transportation electrification) will play a key role in connecting charging stations to the grid and establishing rates that encourage charging at times when the electricity system can most easily accommodate the load with clean power.

Fourth, we must make our buildings zero-carbon and climate-smart.

From more efficient appliances to heat pumps, there are increasingly available and effective approaches to decarbonize buildings. As more and more cities recognize, it doesn’t make sense to expand natural gas infrastructure to serve new buildings, but it is essential to fix leaks in the existing gas pipeline network to reduce methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Schools should be a particular focus, as the Biden administration has recognized with an action plan for building better school infrastructure. They are important community centers, and the second-largest sector of public infrastructure spending. Schools can install solar and be made more energy-efficient, which will not only reduce emissions, but can also save money for education. They can also integrate electric school buses to provide emergency power as well as green school yards, which can help manage climate impacts (like flooding and extreme heat) and make green spaces more accessible to the community.

And fifth, we must decarbonize industry through efficiency improvements, electrification, circular economy measures, and by developing technologies such as green hydrogen.

The IPCC report found that limiting rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees C will also require removing carbon from the atmosphere. Investing in carbon removal in the United States can counter-balance emissions from hard-to-abate sectors like industry, while helping address the country’s disproportionate contribution to historical emissions. Carbon removal needs to supplement, not replace, rapid and deep reductions in emissions. Nonetheless, we need to invest now to build up our carbon dioxide capture, removal and sequestration capacity so it is both affordable and available at scale.

We can and should develop a portfolio of projects, from implementing direct air carbon capture (DAC) hubs to forest management activities that increase the amount of carbon forests can absorb and store. Natural carbon removal approaches are already sequestering billions of tons of carbon dioxide and should continue to be enhanced to help keep us on track. But available land is limited, so it is very likely we will also need to deploy a suite of nascent technological carbon removal approaches, such as DAC, mineralization and ocean-based systems.   

As President Biden said in his State of the Union address and in his budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year, it’s time to build a better America. But to make sure the country capitalizes on all that a clean energy, carbon-negative future offers, we have to scale up climate-smart infrastructure investment starting today.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Hill.

Dan Lashof is Director of WRI United States.

Lori Bird is Director of WRI’s U.S. Energy Program and the Polsky Chair for Renewable Energy.

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