Climate change impacts every facet of environmental protection and exacerbates challenges we already face, ranging from air quality to stormwater management to invasive species. Pennsylvania’s contribution to global climate change is significant, as should be its role in limiting that change and its impacts.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council is concerned that the present level and scope of activity and thinking in the Commonwealth is not robust enough to put us on a viable path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a pace that prevents the worst case scenario impacts of climate change. Current efforts to meet the requirements of the Clean Power Plan, for example, will reduce GHG emissions by about one-third by 2030, and can be largely achieved by replacement of some Pennsylvania coal with natural gas, and moderate renewables scale up. But this leaves a significant shortfall in reaching the recommended 80% cuts by 2050. Getting to the latter benchmark, and beyond, may require greater systemic changes, while still delivering reliable and affordable energy to consumers.

While there are many ways to reduce carbon emissions, the challenge is determining which strategies, or combination of actions, will be effective in obtaining sufficient emission reductions. Complicating this all is the fact that infrastructure investments being made today can lock in energy choices for decades to come, without achieving significant GHG reductions. Put another way, incremental decisions we make in the next decade may either facilitate virtual elimination of carbon, or push us into “dead ends” that make that outcome impossible or unaffordable. Emerging thinking is focusing on the idea of deep decarbonization - a pathway to the end goal of eliminating carbon emissions altogether.

To examine the efficacy of deep decarbonization as an option for Pennsylvania’s electricity future, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council is holding a conference to bring together prominent thought-leaders in clean energy and climate protection for an open and honest discussion around the challenges of deep decarbonization as a potential strategy for Pennsylvania. The event will start a conversation about whether deep decarbonization makes sense for our state and, if so, what will be the components of this strategy, and what policies and programs are needed to get there. While efforts will need to be made to decarbonize all sectors of the economy, including transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture, this event will focus primarily on deep decarbonization of the electricity sector, which accounts for 40% of Pennsylvania’s CO2 emissions. We will explore activities in the following four areas: renewable energy, carbon capture and storage for fossil fuels, energy efficiency, and nuclear power.

Following the conference, PEC will produce a white paper with its recommendations for Pennsylvania’s electricity future. That document will serve as the basis of our work in this area, much as PEC did in 2010 with respect to unconventional shale gas development.

Why Discuss a Global Issue at the State Level? Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of CO2 in the country. With approximately 200 major electricity generation facilities, we rank second in the nation in electricity generation, fourth in coal production, and second in both nuclear and natural gas production. As the number one state in the nation for electricity exports, electricity generation in Pennsylvania has impacts on neighboring states and beyond.

Market conditions alone may get us close to Pennsylvania’s target under the Clean Power Plan of a 33% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2030. However, a reduction of 80% by 2050, and 100% soon thereafter, is more in line with international and national estimates of the reduction required to prevent disastrous impacts.

PEC has a long history of convening diverse parties around complex issues for honest dialogue. We have begun exploring “deep decarbonization” and how this approach might help guide Pennsylvania (and beyond) to achieve significant carbon emissions reductions while still ensuring affordable and dependable energy supplies and supporting a healthy economy.