The American Prospect has a new issue out on climate change, and I highly recommend the article by Jeffrey Sachs.
Sachs does an excellent job explaining why we do not need a World War II style mobilization to decarbonize the United States economy. We can achieve a high level of decarbonization by 2050 at a modest aggregate cost (Sachs guesses 1 to 2% of output) by replacing existing power plants, vehicles, furnaces, etc. with green technologies at the end of their useful lives, using the resources that would have been used for this purpose anyway.
Sachs also explains very clearly how accelerating the timetable for a clean energy transition will greatly increase the cost and economic disruption for small gains and is probably not justifiable. This point does not seem to be widely understood. Here is Sachs:
Consider, for example, the challenge of decarbonizing the U.S. fleet of some 200 million light-duty vehicles. Suppose, as an illustration, that cars last for 20 years, and that ten million vehicles are currently retired each year and replaced with ten million newly produced vehicles. The industry’s production capacity is geared to ten million sales per year. In order to shift the U.S. automobile fleet to electric vehicles, the industry must be retooled.
Let us stipulate for purposes of illustration that converting the U.S. automotive industry to the production of ten million BEVs per year will require a decade, providing the time not only to retool existing production lines and to design the new vehicles, but also the time to build new supply chains for batteries and other components. As of 2030, all new U.S. vehicle production and sales will be electric. Between 2030 and 2050, the entire fleet of 200 million internal combustion vehicles will be phased out and replaced by electric ones.
Could this happen, instead, by 2040? That would require replacing 200 million vehicles during a ten-year period, 2030 to 2040. Annual production and sales of electric vehicles in the 2030s would have to average 20 million vehicles, twice the current industrial capacity. Yet after 2040, production and sales would fall for many years because of the young age of the BEV fleet. The production boom would be replaced by a bust. In the long run, production would revert to ten million per year on average. Moreover, the early conversion of the fleet would only reduce emissions to the extent that the U.S. power system also had been decarbonized and expanded by 2040 to accommodate the 200 million electric vehicles.
Perhaps the early replacement of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040 could be accomplished, but the extraordinary costs of the early scrappage of existing vehicles, the massive rise in overall vehicle production to 20 million per year during the 2030s, and the subsequent closure of industrial capacity after 2040 would effectively require the nationalization of the automobile industry. And the emissions from the temporary boom of automobile production could easily overwhelm any emissions reductions achieved by the early scrappage of the internal combustion engine fleet.
This simple parable is meant to illustrate a point. We will need until 2050 to achieve full decarbonization. Even then, we will be incurring many extraordinary costs to meet the mid-century target, including the early closure of hundreds or even thousands of fossil fuel–based power plants. Yes, we should have started decarbonization in earnest in the 1990s, by adopting the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, it was spurned by the U.S. Senate. So here we are in 2020 with far too little time left for climate safety. Yet we must proceed.
I am curious to know if people find this persuasive . . .