Sharply reducing carbon emissions is imperative to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Yet even in the power sector—often viewed as the lynchpin to economy-wide decarbonization, and where low-carbon solutions are increasingly plentiful and cost effective—the pace and scale of the required transformation can be daunting. A review of historical trends, however, shows the progress the power sector has already made in reducing emissions.
Fifteen years ago, many business-as-usual projections, such as in the Energy Information Administration’s 2005 Annual Energy Outlook, anticipated that annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power supply in the United States would reach 3,000 million metric tons (MMT) in the year 2020. In fact, direct power-sector CO2 emissions in 2020 were 1,430 MMT—roughly 50% below the earlier projections. By this metric, in only 15 years the country’s power sector has gone halfway to zero emissions. At the same time, electricity bills are lower, costs to human health from air pollution are lower, climate damages from carbon dioxide emissions are lower, and the number of energy jobs is higher than previously projected. Some factors that have contributed to this success include broad changes to the economy, energy efficiency, more wind and solar power, continued operations of the nuclear fleet, and switching from coal to gas. Achieving a net zero power sector may be challenging, but if the past is any guide, it suggests that further deep reductions are possible.