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U.Va. professor develops plan to vault Virginia into position of global climate leadership

Faculty at Weldon Cooper Center outline plan to fully decarbonize Virginia’s economy by 2050

A plan to significantly lower carbon emissions by 2050 proves potentially achievable and a net benefit to Virginia’s economy
A plan to significantly lower carbon emissions by 2050 proves potentially achievable and a net benefit to Virginia’s economy

A report by the Weldon Cooper Center at the University shows that with integrated planning and cooperative policy, decarbonization of the Virginia economy by 2050 is both achievable and affordable. The plan to reduce carbon emissions was developed by William Shobe, professor of public policy and Weldon Cooper director, along with Weldon Cooper Visiting Scholar Anthony Artuso and Principal Scientist Arthur Small.  If implemented, the plan would position Virginia as both a national and global leader in climate change action. 

The team’s report came on the heels of the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state move to a carbon neutral electricity grid by 2050 by establishing new energy efficiency standards, investing in renewable energy infrastructure and requiring state energy providers — Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power —  to operate carbon-free by 2045 and 2050, respectively. Electricity generation accounts for about 30 percent of carbon emissions in the state. 

While economists and environmentalists see this bill as an important step in the right direction, the bill does not include mandates on carbon neutrality in other sectors, like transportation, which is responsible for nearly half of all carbon emissions in Virginia. 

With that in mind, the University team took the plan a step further and evaluated the feasibility of complete decarbonization in Virginia by 2050. According to the report, decarbonization by mid-century is achievable, affordable and would actually confer economic benefits to the state — primarily in public health improvements and the prevention of environmental destruction. 

The report also shows that delays in action continue to be costly as they lead to higher long-run implementation costs and the potential for more environmental damage in the way of eroding coastal resources and water acidification, among others. 

Key to the plan is a transition of energy inputs primarily to solar, offshore wind and existing nuclear and away from coal. This transition depends on the rapid expansion of solar and offshore wind energy generation with solar voltaic and offshore wind power supplying 70% of electricity in Virginia by 2050 — solar voltaic and offshore wind currently supply less than 10% of electricity in the state.  Shobe believes this transition is feasible because of innovation in alternative energy sources and dropping prices for solar and wind. 

“Far beyond our wildest expectations, solar and wind have now become the cheapest sources of energy in Virginia,” Shobe said. “If you’re going to build a new power plant in Virginia, and you want to tap the lowest cost electricity, you build a solar park.” 

Shobe and the team also emphasize the importance of boosting state administrative capacity to address climate problems as they arise. In practice, this means empowering a state agency or body with the express purpose of facilitating carbon neutrality and managing clean energy policy. 

With increased administrative capacity and a successful transition to these more efficient energy sources and some carbon emission sequestration, the team’s plan would put Virginia into a position of national and global climate leadership. 

While Virginia has the potential to become a leader in climate policy, it still lags behind many other states in renewable energy consumption. In the last three reports from the Department of Energy, Virginia has ranked in the bottom half of states when it comes to percent of electricity production from renewable sources. 

Recent steps taken by the state to improve its carbon position — like passing the Virginia Clean Economy Act and joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a greenhouse gas cap and trade program among 11 Northeast and Mid-atlantic states —  represent a shift in the right direction according to Artuso, a visiting scholar at the Cooper Center. However, that policy shift must now be translated into action to create meaningful change in the state. 

“The Virginia Clean Economy Act has [vaulted Virginia] into the top tier of policy ambition,” Artuso said. “We’re right up there with a number of different states, but policy ambition is different than accomplishment.” 

Fortunately, Virginia is not alone in this shifting tide of policy. Recently, the world has begun moving to address climate change in unprecedented ways. More than 190 nations have signed the Paris Climate Agreement, with the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. Many major corporations —  like General Motors, Amazon and Microsoft — have followed suit, pledging to be carbon neutral by mid-century. Even China, the world’s largest producer of carbon emissions, has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060. 

Even with this unprecedented movement towards clean energy and carbon neutrality, Shobe believes that Virginia — once it has implemented the decarbonization policies proposed in the team’s plan — would be a great model for nations and other states on their path to complete carbon neutrality. 

“Our economy is about the size of Sweden’s economy, and if we were to announce zero carbon emissions by 2050, we would be among the international leaders in decarbonization. I think a lot of other people are going to be following suit, but we are in a position to stay out in the lead.”  

Although this plan to decarbonize Virginia’s economy and achieve carbon neutrality

underscores an important transition away from coal and other fossil fuel consumption, Shobe and the team are careful to not abandon Virginians who work in coal and other fossil fuel industries. 

“We shouldn’t be imposing huge costs on parts of the state to the benefit of everyone else, when we can work out arrangements that will soften the consequences and provide new opportunities to replace the old ones.” 

According to Shobe, good environmental policy demands not only a consideration of the potential environmental benefits, but also a plan to prevent the imposition of huge costs on specific workers and industries. Consequently, Shobe was sure to highlight the significance of retraining services and devoting new resources to parts of the state that mine and extract fossil fuels. 

“We are a big family in the state of Virginia,” Shobe said. “We need to be looking after all members of our family and not leaving people behind.”


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