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With New Jersey Poised to Slash Greenhouse Gas Emissions, A National Plan Could Show the Way

This November, New Jersey will elect a new governor, and both major candidates say New Jersey must do more to combat climate change. Against that backdrop, a new report, An Examination of Policy Options for Achieving Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions in New Jersey, explores how New Jersey can go from laggard to leader on climate action. This article focuses on an important first step: developing a detailed and comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, i.e., a “deep decarbonization plan.”

Why Should States Plan for Deep Decarbonization?

Deep decarbonization plans help states ensure that their actions are consistent with emissions targets. Like many states, New Jersey has an ambitious statutory 2050 target – an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2006 levels. The state has implemented certain measures that will reduce emissions, including a Renewable Portfolio Standard that encourages electricity production from solar, wind and other clean sources. Some may be tempted to conclude the state is on the right path. A closer look at the numbers, however, shows otherwise (see figure below). Similar to the country as a whole, New Jersey’s current GHG emissions trajectory is relatively flat, far from the ambitious reductions needed to achieve deep decarbonization.

Long-term decarbonization plans are also important because a long-term perspective changes a state’s priorities. Some actions, like building long-lived natural gas infrastructure, may be cost-effective for near-term emissions targets, but make achieving long-term emissions objectives more difficult and expensive. Other actions, like the electrification of vehicles and heating, are more important to achieving long-term targets than near-term emissions reductions alone might indicate.

How Can States Plan for Decarbonization?

Last November, the United States released a Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization (U.S. MCS), which demonstrates how the country can achieve a low-GHG emissions pathway while meeting the growing demands on its energy system and lands. Included are technological pathways and policy recommendations for the three major sources of GHG emissions:

  1. Transitioning to a low-carbon energy system.

    The U.S. MCS energy system pathway initially focuses on improving energy efficiency and decarbonizing the electricity sector. These are areas where many low-cost and low-carbon opportunities exist today, and more will become cost-effective as low-carbon generation sources and enabling technologies (e.g., energy storage, grid flexibility) continue to progress. Over time, the remainder of the energy system will be decarbonized by switching to low-carbon fuels such as clean electricity or sustainable forms of biomass. States can propel this transition using public policies that promote low-carbon innovation, encourage more efficient energy production and use, and put a price on carbon dioxide emissions.
  2. Sequestering carbon.

    When carbon dioxide is stored in trees, plants, soils and products, less of it is released into the atmosphere. The U.S. MCS strategy for carbon sequestration includes actions that encourage larger and more productive forests, promote improved soil carbon sequestration, foster smarter urban development, and support the development of CO2 removal technologies.
  3. Reducing non-CO2 emissions.

    Strategies for reducing emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases vary due to the diversity of emissions sources. A common theme in the U.S. MCS is the need for innovation to identify low-carbon and low-cost alternatives to GHG emissions sources. At the same time, strong and cost-effective regulations can be implemented on existing emissions sources, such as methane from fossil fuel production and HFCs from refrigerants.

 

Of course, each state confronts its own set of challenges and opportunities, but the U.S. MCS gives states an important guide to developing a deep decarbonization strategy that can be tailored to a state’s unique circumstances.

In New Jersey’s case, the most densely populated U.S. state is likely to reap considerable gains from “smart growth” strategies that improve urban development, mass transit and shared mobility. With an economy heavily integrated with its neighbors, New Jersey’s decarbonization plan can emphasize cooperation with other states, including existing inter-state programs such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative  and the Transportation and Climate Initiative

New Jersey also has significant advantages in transitioning to a low carbon power sector: half of the state’s electricity production already comes from zero carbon sources (compared to one-third for the U.S. as a whole), and the coastline gives New Jersey the opportunity to satisfy a significant portion of its electricity demand with off-shore wind energy. On the other hand, off-shore wind must overcome the hurdles that have hindered the technology’s deployment thus far (e.g., high costs, lengthy regulatory processes), and New Jersey’s nuclear power plants may shut down without near-term policy support, which will make deep decarbonization more expensive and challenging to achieve.

2050 is Now

Decisions made today will influence economies in 2050, and states that act decisively now will have a leg up in achieving cost-effective emissions reductions and exporting low carbon goods and services to the rest of the world. Under a new governor in 2017, New Jersey has a prime opportunity to become a leader on climate action. A good first step would be to develop a detailed and comprehensive plan for deep decarbonization. An even better second step would be to implement that plan, using the broad range of tools discussed in the report.

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