Addressing the challenge of global climate change will require a significant reduction in annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States and throughout the world by 2050. This will necessitate a fundamental shift from an economy predominantly based on fossil fuels to one based on efficiently managed low-carbon energy sources and technologies that capture and store carbon from fossil fuels. Such a transition could also have other benefits, including increasing energy security, improving public health, and promoting economic development. But the transition will not be easy, as significant technological challenges, social and economic concerns, and political constraints exist.
Achievement of this transition depends on both near-term and long-term actions. In the near term, it is essential to take advantage of current technologies and opportunities, and also to make substantial investments in the technologies of the future. But most of all, the United States needs a clearly enunciated policy. Without such a policy, businesses, consumers, and citizens are missing opportunities for cost-effective GHG reductions and investment for the future. Too often the debate over GHG emission reductions pits near-term actions against long-term investments in technology, when in fact both are necessary and are each more effective if undertaken together. A variety of policies, public and private leadership, and broad societal engagement will be needed to bring low-carbon technologies into the market. Because of the long-lived nature of most energy infrastructure, it is critical that action begin now to promote the development and use of low-carbon energy technologies. This “In Brief” addresses possible technological solutions to enable a low-carbon future in the next 50 years and identifies policy options for the next 10 years to help push and pull these technologies into the market.