Be Like Boris: How to Craft a Climate Strategy

On November 1, 2021, Special Envoy John Kerry and National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy released the Long-Term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050. The report is less a strategy than a modeling exercise, showing what energy consumption and technologies will need to look like to achieve a least-cost, net-zero economy. In that way, it resembles much of what several other modeling groups have released, but what is lacking is a sense of how to get from here to there in the real world. What policies, interventions, sectoral strategies, and near-term goals will bring about this net-zero world? If the Biden administration wants to craft a credible net-zero strategy for 2050, they should look to the host of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26)—the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has been among the best in the world at reducing emissions, cutting CO2 almost in half from 1990 to 2020, and its government has set its sights on net zero by 2050.

The United Kingdom released its Net Zero Strategy on October 19, 2021, to coincide with the country’s updated 2030 contribution to the Paris Agreement. The 367-page document lays out goals, timelines, and actions for decarbonizing power, fuels, transportation, industry, and buildings as well as reducing non-CO2 greenhouse gases and removing carbon from the atmosphere. The document aligns goals with the government’s declining carbon budgets, set in five-year increments by the Climate Change Committee.

Identify Specific Actions and Timelines

A clear strategy from the United States should include specific policies and programs with identifiable timelines. It is important to know not just where the country is going, but also what it is going to do to get there. For example, the Long-Term Strategy notes that on average, the United States will have to add up to 115 gigawatts (GW) of clean energy per year by 2030, up to 167 GW per year in the 2030s, and up to 123 GW per year in the 2040s. The document lists some ways this could be achieved, such as investments in grid infrastructure and energy efficiency, but it does not say which route the country will take.

In the United Kingdom’s Net Zero Strategy, timelines are articulated with goals and mechanisms to achieve them. The report sets out an emissions goal for each sector. In the power sector, for example, emissions must fall by 71–76 percent from 2019 levels in 2030, 80–85 percent in 2035, and 95–98 percent in 2050. Actions to achieve this timeline include contracts for difference auctions, which set long-term contracts for power that minimize volatile price impacts; £380 million of investments in offshore wind supply chains and infrastructure; and a policy framework to require smart meter installations starting in 2022. The presence of clear timelines and specific actions provides regulatory certainty, demonstrates that the government has seriously considered what needs to be done to achieve its goals, and provides clear metrics for evaluating emissions reductions relative to the targets set forth in the strategy.

Show How Sectors Contribute to Economy-Wide Emissions Reductions

The U.S. Long-Term Strategy provides a summary of emissions from major economic sectors and outcomes consistent with lower emissions, such as increasing electric vehicle sales in transportation or encouraging fuel switching in heavy industry. However, each sector receives a few pages in the 64-page document. In the United Kingdom’s Net Zero Strategy, each sector has its own decarbonization plan. These include plans for the power sector, fuel supply and hydrogen, heavy industry, heat and buildings, and transportation. In some cases, there are even subsector plans, such as the Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan in the power sector or the National Bus Strategy in the transport sector. Being able to connect these plans to a larger, economy-wide strategy shows how the various policy levers available in each sector come together to bring down emissions. This approach also allows for more depth of discussion of how various actors will contribute to decarbonizing each sector.

Moving Forward

Having a long-term strategy with a sufficient level of detail gives the public, the private sector, and investors insight into how the United Kingdom is looking to decarbonize and how everyone can positively contribute. Just as importantly, it helps observers evaluate government actions and how they align with overall climate targets. In October 2021, the UK Climate Change Committee, an independent group of academics and private sector leaders convened by the government, released an assessment of the country’s Net Zero Strategy. The depth of detail in the Net Zero Strategy allowed for a quantitative and a qualitative comparison between the government’s strategy and a scenario identified by the committee. Evaluation by an outside body (even one that is blessed by the government) lends legitimacy to the plan and allows the public to understand why the plan is or is not likely to achieve the goals the government sets out.

The United States does not have a national strategy to achieve net-zero emissions. While the executive branch has set emissions-reduction targets, executive orders carry no penalty for missing deadlines and can be rescinded by future administrations. At the same time, the authority of the executive branch to address greenhouse gas emissions is being challenged in court. Congress has fared no better in determining a comprehensive approach to climate change and has been limited to sector-by-sector subsidies and the innovation and industrial policies in the recently passed infrastructure bill.

Even with political and administrative challenges, there are actions the executive branch can take in individual sectors to create demand, prove technologies, and build markets. The federal government has vast procurement authority and can use this to create demand for products such as electric vehicles for federal fleets, zero-carbon fuels for military aircraft, and high-efficiency retrofits for government buildings. Executive agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation (DoT), and Department of the Interior (DoI) still have authority over climate-related areas, even if EPA authority over greenhouse gases is upended—for example, fuel economy standards are set by the DoT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the DoI could still address energy production (oil and gas as well as renewables) on public lands.

The administration may have to assemble a strategy with a limited set of tools, but that does not preclude thinking seriously about how the United States meets its climate goals. In the absence of a plan like this, the important work gets outsourced to academia, consulting firms, and think tanks, all of which are valuable but often lack the transparency and auditability of government data. The White House should consider how the United Kingdom has successfully articulated its strategy: by detailing specific policies and how they help meet intermediate goals and creating an interlocking set of sectoral plans. Following its example could help set the United States on a productive path to make meaningful progress toward net-zero emissions by 2050.

Stephen J. Naimoli is an associate fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Stephen J. Naimoli