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News, Science & Research

Study suggests potential decarbonization plan for R.I. that could lead to net zero emissions by 2050

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Rhode Island has the potential to cut its carbon emissions by 80 percent between 2030 and 2050, according to data from a recently published study from the Brown Climate and Development Lab and the Stockholm Environment Institute, titled “Faster and steeper is feasible: Modeling deeper decarbonization in a Northeastern U.S. State.”

 The study’s blueprint for deep decarbonization emphasizes the importance of reducing carbon emissions from building infrastructure and quickly ending the purchase of new fossil fuel-powered equipment and transportation.

The findings demonstrate that it is possible to decarbonize the Ocean State at a rate high enough to match the recommendations outlined in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

The study’s inception in 2019 was partially a response to the 2018 IPCC report, which set a goal to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, J. Timmons Roberts, a leader of the study, professor of environmental studies, environment and society and director of the CDL, wrote in an email to The Herald. After the report’s release, it became “clear that we need to get to 100 percent net zero (emissions) by 2050, and cut emissions in half by 2030,” he added.

The project was a follow-up to climate-related work that began in 2014, according to Roberts. That year, the Resilient Rhode Island Act was passed, which aimed to cut emissions in R.I. by 80 percent by 2050. But as science and means of gathering data improved, the researchers found that the previously established “rate of cuts would not be sufficient to keep the planet inhabitable,” Roberts wrote.

Researchers at the CDL and SEI created their models and recommendations for the newly published study by analyzing the major sources of emissions in the state, including transportation, building heat and fossil fuels in the power grid, said Jason Veysey, another leader of the study and deputy director of energy modeling at SEI.

Despite their confidence in the feasibility of rapid decarbonization, both Roberts and Veysey expressed some concerns over certainty of the data, the plan’s implementation and public response.

Contributions from natural gas leakage on emission calculations suggest that R.I.’s carbon emissions could be as much as 45 percent higher than current estimates suggest, Veysey said. “We need to take natural gas, and natural gas leaks, very seriously.” 

“People are used to thinking of gas as this relatively clean fuel, but the reality is that gas infrastructure leaks a lot,” Veysey added. “In New England, where the infrastructure is old, it leaks even more than it would otherwise, but even if it’s brand new, it’s designed to leak. Those leaks have immense climate implications.”

Both Roberts and Veysey also expressed concerns about the political barriers to implementing their decarbonization plan. “The (Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council) did hear our results, and (the study) had some impact,” Roberts wrote, but he wonders if, at other times, similar research findings are not taken properly into consideration. 

Veysey also emphasized the uphill battle their proposed measures could face. “One barrier is disinformation from entrenched interests in the status quo,” he said.

Such disinformation and skepticism may spread from “fossil fuel producers in this region, and … the network of suppliers of fossil fuels and fossil fuel-based equipment,” according to Veysey.

The expense of the cuts in carbon emission could also lead to public hesitation, Veysey said. People are particularly “concerned about the affordability of these (decarbonization) solutions for those who are least advantaged economically,” he said.

But the “significant costs” of decarbonization “also bring a number of benefits that we pointed to in our study,” including improvements in the air quality, health and climate, he said. “The challenge is to figure out how to finance those costs and do it in a way that it’s equitable for the least advantaged.”

Still, the authors pointed to signs that the state was beginning to take action, such as the “fundamental” Act on Climate bill mandating decarbonization that is currently pending in the state General Assembly, Roberts wrote.

The bill would amend the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act to make the state’s deeper emissions targets enforceable. The new targets require the state to cut emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2040 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. Enforcement of the mandate cannot start before 2025, and the first updated emissions reduction plan is due at the end of that year.

Elizabeth Stone ’96, an official at the director’s office of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, said that the legislation mirrors the recommendations in the study.

“The new, deeper targets that are outlined in that piece of legislation have net zero by 2050 as the ultimate goal,” Stone said. “It’s very much in line with what the study is calling for Rhode Island to do.”

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