Shortly after taking office in January, Governor Pritzker signed an executive order joining Illinois into the U.S. Climate Alliance. By itself, this was a bold action that directly and openly rebukes the current federal policy of neglecting environmental health and public safety. Living up to this commitment will require even bolder action.
What’s the Climate Alliance?
By signing Illinois into the US Climate Alliance, Illinois joined a “bipartisan coalition of governors committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.” Joining the Climate Alliance is an important step that deserves commendation, but signing an executive order does not guarantee that Illinois will meet the goals of the Paris Agreement; it is simply a promise of intent from the Governor, and lacks the enforcement power of law.
To keep this promise, Illinois (as bound by the United States Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement) will need to accomplish a 26-28% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 from 2005 levels. As it currently stands, Illinois has reduced our carbon dioxide by about 16% in the years from 2005 to 2016.
At a glance, it may appear that Illinois need only to stay the course to meet the Paris goals. Disappointingly, this is not the case. While the progress so far is an improvement, the majority of this carbon reduction is attributable to the displacement of coal by natural gas to generate electricity. The increasing adoption of renewables is beginning to play a role, but it is not yet significant.
What’s more, the terms “carbon emissions” and “greenhouse gas” emissions are not interchangeable. Carbon is only one type of climate change-causing greenhouse gas (“GHG”), and natural gas is not necessarily good for overall GHG reductions. Natural gas, while lower in carbon, does emit the extremely strong GHG methane, which could be undoing any climate benefits that a transition to natural gas offers. This issue points us to the first fundamental truth Illinois must accept to meet our goals: a transition to natural gas in the electricity sector will not be enough.
Electricity, and beyond!
If we were to completely decarbonize (and de-methane) the electricity sector by removing both coal and gas by 2025, Illinois would easily meet the goal of a 26% GHG reduction. Given this would require an impossible transition rate in the electricity sector, such a plan cannot be pursued. Moreover, achieving a 26% GHG reduction is not the last step required to meet the Paris Agreement standards; the 2025 goals are only the first stage of action needed to prevent catastrophic global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius. Ultimately, the United States is committed to economy-wide emissions reductions of 80% or more by 2050. This requires that Illinois accept a second fundamental truth: we have to reduce emissions from sources other than electricity because even a completely clean electricity sector is not enough.
The next clear target is the transportation sector. In order to effectively reduce transportation emissions, Illinois will need to rapidly adopt electric vehicles, improve and electrify public transit systems, and reduce commuting overall with smart urban planning. Together, these options will produce far greater reductions than if they are implemented on their own.
There is another action Illinois can take to meet the Paris goals you won’t find on the “Carbon Emissions” graph, which is to create carbon sinks. The Paris Agreement allows for carbon reductions in the form of forest conservation and growth to reduce net GHG emissions. For example, China has committed to planting forests that add up to more than three times the size of Illinois. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources already manages more than 475,000 acres of land; expanding this could help us reduce atmospheric carbon and preserve the natural beauty of the State.
So, we know (roughly) what we need to do. The question now becomes how do we do it. What policies will ensure these shifts actually occur? The Future Energy Jobs Act that passed in 2016 is driving new renewable energy construction, but FEJA will only ensure that 25% of our energy is generated by renewables. In order to remove GHGs from the electricity sector, at least 50% of our electricity needs to be sourced from renewable energy. Closing this gap will require passing comprehensive legislation that steadily shifts the electricity sector towards 100% renewable energy and incentivizes significant investment in clean transportation.
Well-designed legislation should take advantage of Illinois’s current energy generation mix by replacing gas and coal resources with renewable energy by 2030. Then, the legislation should ensure that as the nuclear fleet phases out on schedule, it is replaced exclusively with renewable energy to avoid backsliding into fossil fuel. This rapid reduction in GHGs from the electricity sector by 2030 would allow Illinois some flexibility in reducing emissions from the transportation sector, as replacing millions of cars will likely prove more challenging than replacing coal plants with cheaper and cleaner energy sources. Moreover, an ideal legislative package will maximize efficiency in the commercial, industrial, and agricultural sectors.
Illinois needs both comprehensive legislation and skilled regulatory agencies committed to overseeing this transition. Right now, the US Climate Alliance is projected to miss their 2025 targets by as little as 1% – if Illinois responds to this challenge in force, we could turn the tide. With proper care, the State’s transition to a clean energy economy can be affordable for the public and grow new clean energy industries that already employ more than 100,000 Illinoisans. Moreover, cleaner energy means cleaner air, which will lead to massive health benefits for the public by reducing asthma attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular disease across the State. This is a vision worth fighting for.
The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, with the Illinois Environmental Council as a founding member, have been working to coordinate environmental and business groups across Illinois to assist in making this vision a reality.
All data used for this piece was sourced from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.