What is Decarbonization?
The global scientific community is in agreement that the world needs to achieve net-zero emissions – releasing no net additional carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere – as quickly as possible and by the early 2050s for the best chance at limiting climate impacts. Decarbonization for southwestern Pennsylvania can be considered an ambitious, aspirational goal, an environmental mandate, an unprecedented economic opportunity — or all three. Business, government, and community organizations are all increasingly working to meet the challenge and reap the benefits of action.
This web feature aims to help our region in its strategic approach to decarbonization. It strives to make sense of decarbonization, and why it is important. The work of individual companies, municipalities, and other groups all contribute to this overarching strategy.
The environmental mandate is clear, with the past 9 years being the hottest 9 years ever recorded globally, in an undeniable warming trend across the last century, and with human-caused carbon pollution as the unequivocal culprit.
Climate risks and impacts will continue to grow until we address carbon emissions in a serious way. The biggest climate impacts to this region will be increased heat and greater and more extreme precipitation events. Increasing precipitation and increasing heat – in addition to increased risk to property, community infrastructure, and disruption of business operations – will create increased burden on our disaster response systems. The greatest risks to human health in this region due to climate change will be:
- Heat-related mortality;
- Changes in spread of infectious disease;
- Respiratory illness from poor air quality;
- Increases in allergen load; and
- Flooding and deterioration of water quality.
As with climate impacts across the globe, most of these risks will have the greatest significance for those who lack the resources to respond; one recent study has shown that approximately 40% of cardiovascular deaths from air pollution in Allegheny County happen in environmental justice communities where only 27% of the population resides. Existing environmental impairments exacerbate climate risks; ground-level ozone air pollution, for instance, forms more easily the warmer it gets.
The economic opportunity is also clear. Thanks to recent federal legislation, we have vital new opportunities to address carbon emissions at the same time as we foster economic growth and quality jobs, helping individuals and our communities. A recent report from E2, includes information from 178 of the 210 announcements from the Inflation Reduction Act in the first year that included new jobs and/or investment estimates. Analysis revealed these projects are projected to create at least 74,181 new jobs and bring in $86.3 billion in investment. However, the E2 report includes only two projects in PA and no projects in the southwestern part of the state. Our understanding of the benefit so far to communities in our region is incomplete.
Economic opportunity is important for our region, with many communities suffering from decades of disinvestment. Sustainable Pittsburgh’s analysis, using the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST), has identified 190 municipalities in the 10-county region of southwestern PA that contain census tracts described as disadvantaged by the federal government. Each of these is therefore an important geography for locating investment under the Justice40 initiative. Justice40 requires that many current federal spending programs result in 40% of the benefit going to these areas. Contact us for more information about these municipalities and county profiles.
Climate change is here and now. If left unchecked, it could cost the global economy $178 trillion over the next 50 years, according to a May 2022 report from Deloitte. But if the world acts now to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century, we turn the global liability into a global economic gain of $43 trillion in 2070. Further, the opportunity for an energy transition in southwestern PA is enormous. Half of Pennsylvania’s approximately 20,000 electricity generation workers already work in renewables, which stands at 3% of electricity produced, indicating massive growth potential and a benefit for the local economy. It is essential that as we work to transform the economy around the world and here in the region, that the benefit must be for all.
Decarbonization is, for a longstanding energy producing region with significant fossil fuel-based industry, a highly ambitious goal. Thankfully, our strengths in manufacturing, innovation, and old-fashioned hard work are valuable assets. Several studies point toward the challenge before us, with 70 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent as our regional footprint, across all sectors, per the Our Region’s Energy Future report by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. The report also notes that the “10-county per capita emissions are ~50-55% higher than US and PA per capita emissions.”
Because of stakeholder engagement, we know that key in each sector will be the following strategies, each to include measurement and accountability, meaningful community engagement, and deployment of solutions at scale. This is what we need to do:
Electricity – According to analysis by Princeton’s Zero Lab, zero-carbon generation sources, including renewables, hydro, biomass, and nuclear energy, will account for approximately 60% of the PJM grid territory’s total generation by 2030. (Southwestern PA is in the PJM territory.) We are on the cusp of a massive shift in how we get electricity, including massive deployment of renewable energy, and grid updates to support this shift. Zero-carbon electricity is at the center of decarbonization pathways for many other sectors.
Industry – Our most important reductions will need to come from “hard-to-decarbonize” sectors. Several analyses point to electrification – simultaneously with decarbonizing our electrical sector – as central to any solution. This should happen in addition to technological improvements to decarbonize key industrial processes.
Buildings – As with industry, electrification is one important part of the strategy, paired with widespread and comprehensive deployment of energy efficiency measures, and increasingly better building design and operations. The energy efficiency goals are an area where policy change, investments in workforce and programs serving existing buildings, will be vital.
Transportation – Electrification of transportation is a topic generating significant discussion, action, and incentives. With transportation now our largest source of carbon nationally and second-largest in PA thanks to fossil-based energy industries, electrification of vehicles small and large, consumer and commercial, is important. Mode shift, moving people with a reduction in single-occupancy vehicles, is however still our most effective way to reduce carbon, including implementations encouraging active transit (walking, biking) in addition to mass transit.
Agriculture and Land Use – Southwestern PA is not the most significantly agricultural part of the state, but that doesn’t mean there is no relevance to how our food is grown, sourced and transported. Likewise, we can improve our application of sustainable development methods to our land use. Priorities here are accountable implementation of sustainable agriculture practices, land remediation and enhancement of forests and carbon sinks, and smart growth principles.
To learn more about what our region is doing, refer to the Decarb Digest.