In 2019, Thea Riofrancos was splitting her time between researching the social and environmental impacts of lithium mining in Chile and organizing for a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels in the United States. A political science professor at Providence College and member of the Climate and Community Project, Riofrancos was struck by the contrast: Lithium is essential to the batteries that make electric vehicles and renewable energy work, but mining inflicts its own environmental damage. “Here I am in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, seeing these mining-related harms, and then there I go in the U.S. advocating for a rapid transition. How do I align these two goals?” Riofrancos said. “And is there a way to have a less extractive energy transition?”
When she went looking for research that would help answer that question, she found none, at least not for the transportation sector, which was her area of focus. “I saw forecast after forecast that assumed basically a binary of the future,” she said. “Either we stay with the fossil fuel status quo and the existential crisis that that is causing for the planet and all of its people. Or we transition to an electrified, renewably powered future, but that doesn’t really change anything about how these sectors or economic activities are organized.”
Riofrancos wanted to look at multiple ways to design an electrified future and understand what the costs and impacts of different scenarios might be. So she linked up with other Climate and Community Project researchers and put together a report mapping out four potential pathways to electrification for the transportation sector. Titled “Achieving Zero Emissions With More Mobility and Less Mining,” the report concluded that even relatively small, easy-to-achieve shifts like reducing the size of cars and their batteries could deliver big returns: a 42 percent reduction in the amount of lithium needed in the U.S., even if the number of cars on the road and the frequency with which people drive stayed the same.
It’s the sort of thing politicians and electrification advocates need to think through now, when decisions can be made to guide the energy transition in one direction or another. It’s also critical to an underdiscussed component of climate action: demand for products and services and the role energy plays in fulfilling those demands. Which connects right up to another topic that American politicians don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole: consumption.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out a report on mitigation of climate risks that included a chapter on demand for the first time in the IPCC’s history. Relying on more than a decade of peer-reviewed research, it concluded that people’s needs — food, shelter, water, transportation — are not always explicitly connected to energy, and even when they are, there are ways to dramatically reduce the amount of energy required to meet them.
That conclusion contradicted several decades of economic theory that suggested that increased energy use and, by extension, increased consumption would always equate to a longer lifespan and improved quality of life. Julia Steinberger, an ecological economist and professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, contributed to the demand chapter. “In phases of economies when everybody’s in poverty, there’s a lot of demand that drives production,” she explained. “After a certain point, though, you have an overproductive industry that’s constantly driving productivity and competitiveness. … And the outlet for that is various kinds of over-consumption or things like planned obsolescence. Basically you wind up with products looking for markets.”
Steinberger says we reached that point with fossil fuels years ago. She’s led several peer-reviewed studies that prove it, as have dozens of other economists. “The fossil fuel industry is using this fake narrative of demand-driven production to excuse their activities,” Steinberger said. “But as soon as you look at demand, the story crumbles. Because all we need is services; that’s what there is demand for. We don’t need the energy use itself. So let’s think about how we deliver those services in a more efficient way.”
Steinberger says the link between increased fossil fuel use and increased life expectancy or quality of life has also been disproven. “This idea of the fossil fuel industry as this grubby titan who’s sort of holding up the industrial basis for the rest of us, they love that narrative, but it’s simply not true,” she said. “Fossil fuel use does not contribute significantly to improvements in life expectancy.”
Which is not to say that there isn’t a global energy access problem, or even that fossil fuels have no short-term role to play in addressing it. Yale economist Narasimha Rao argues that we need to see a reduction in consumption in the Global North so that we can close the energy gap in the Global South without increasing emissions. But so far, all executives and politicians have been willing to talk about is expanding energy development in the Global South. Tackling consumption in the Global North has been painted as radical austerity, “taking our hamburgers,” or a slippery slope to communism.
But the IPCC report laid out several straightforward steps countries could take to enable a decrease in energy usage without sacrificing quality of life. Increasing the availability of car-free and electrified transportation, improving energy efficiency, and basic things like not setting the default temperatures on thermostats to excessively cold or warm levels could all move the needle in a big way while delivering reductions in monthly bills, according to the report. “Forty to 70 percent of the 2050 level of projected emissions can be reduced by working on the demand side,” Indian economist Joyashree Roy, the lead author of the IPCC report’s demand chapter, said. “I think we really need to communicate this more. With the substitutes we’re talking about, a new economy is going to grow. Rather than, you know, an old economy.”
Building a New Economy
The transportation sector is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., which is why it’s a primary target for decarbonization. And thanks to the availability of both electric vehicles and Inflation Reduction Act-related incentives to purchase them, American consumers are embracing the shift, with EV purchases expected to represent half of all vehicle purchases by 2030.
But that shift will bring with it other environmental impacts related to mineral mining and the land required for large-scale renewable projects to provide the electricity all those cars plug into. Policies that reduce car dependency and encourage the use of mass transit can speed decarbonization, make the energy transition more just, reduce environmental impacts, and ease tensions around increasingly scarce resources. Such policies could also help decarbonization advocates get in front of a burgeoning anti-electrification movement that includes folks like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is suddenly very concerned about the impact of cobalt mining on children in the Congo.
Policies that reduce the need for mining and land tend to be popular with voters too. They enable things like more public transit options, which consistently polls well with American voters, and rooftop solar, which has broad bipartisan support across the country.
They’re not so popular with entrenched corporate interests, though. The automotive industry, for example, is not only unlikely to get behind measures to reduce car dependency, but it’s also working hard to sell Americans on the largest possible electric vehicles. According to data from the advertising data firm MediaRadar, the top five largest ad budgets for electric vehicles over the last two years were all for SUVs, not the sedans or compacts that run on smaller batteries. Brands with multiple electric car models, including Chevrolet, Nissan, and Volkswagen, spent more than twice as much money advertising their largest models as their more efficient compact models.
In the broader energy space, the popularity of rooftop solar protected it so long as panels were expensive and adoption was relatively low. But as the cost and accessibility of rooftop solar has come down, so has utilities’ tolerance of it. In 2013, when manufacturing was increasing and the cost began to drop, the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing electrical utilities, put out a white paper cautioning that distributed renewable energy could kick off a “death spiral for utilities.” For years afterward, other industry experts repeated this idea, and utility executives began pushing for policies that would keep rooftop solar small and expensive.
The most recent example was a move by the California Public Utilities Commission to reduce by more than 75 percent the amount utilities pay for excess energy from solar rooftops. That change, driven largely by utilities, went into effect April 15. Even solar advocates had agreed that the state’s net metering policy — the amount of money residents with rooftop solar can earn by selling excess energy back to the utility — needed to be updated. It was written when far fewer residents were installing solar. But few thought the reduction needed to go quite so far.
“It’s not as draconian as the utilities wanted, but it’s still in line with their political agenda,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute.
Utilities complained that the change didn’t go far enough, claiming to be advocating on behalf of low-income Californians, not their own investors. “This final decision was a missed opportunity,” Kathy Fairbanks, spokesperson for Affordable Clean Energy for All, a group headed by the state’s investor-owned utilities, said in a statement. “The current solar subsidy program forces low-income families, renters, seniors, and anyone who doesn’t have rooftop solar to bankroll wealthier Californians’ solar systems.”
“We do want to make sure the benefits of rooftop solar are extended to everyone and are equitable,” Pomerantz said. But “I have a really hard time hearing that argument from utilities that are disconnecting their poorest customers’ power over a few dollars owed, and who have historically sited toxic coal plants in poor communities and communities of color, and who continue to advocate for regressive fixed charges.”
Just as public transit wouldn’t eliminate the need for electric vehicles, unfettered rooftop solar wouldn’t eliminate the need for utility-scale solar projects, but it would reduce the number of them required. And given the major issues with permitting, land use, and conservation around grid-scale renewable projects, that means fewer tensions and fewer environmental impacts.
“We should maximize every bit of rooftop solar that we can,” Pomerantz said. “It won’t solve the tensions between utility-scale renewables and conservation, but rooftop solar doesn’t suffer from any of those thorny issues, so every megawatt of it we can deploy could be a thornier utility renewable project that we might not need.”
Utilities make money off large-scale projects, though, so they don’t love the idea of reducing the number of them. Pomerantz said many of the utilities fighting rooftop solar across the country — including Southern Company in the South, Sempra Energy in California, and Duke Energy in the Midwest and Southeast — are misleading in their arguments. “Utilities love to say that their own renewables that they build and own are cheaper than rooftop solar, but it’s a red herring,” he said. “The problem with that argument is that most utilities are not making a choice between distributed and utility-scale renewables, they’re building and running gas plants and coal plants.”
Despite a whole lot of messaging about how much Americans love trucks and coal, poll after poll shows them loving public transit and rooftop solar even more.
Ultimately, the most efficient, environmentally friendly way to decarbonize might be the path that offers people the most choices. Despite a whole lot of messaging about how much Americans love trucks and coal, poll after poll shows them loving public transit and rooftop solar even more.
“When I look at the transportation system and also my own interaction with it … I experienced a lack of choices, a lack of freedom,” Riofrancos said. “I have lived in places where it was not only not required, but actually more annoying to have a car than to use a bike or bus or a subway or something else. And I now live in a place where the opposite is true. … The vast majority of Americans use cars to get around because they live in contexts where there really is no other option. I don’t blame individuals for those choices, but nor do I see our current transportation system as a paragon of freedom.”
With the Inflation Reduction Act unleashing a wave of incentives for electrified energy and transportation across the country, the United States sits at a key turning point. It can electrify the status quo or use the opportunity of a large-scale energy transition to substantively change systems that haven’t been touched in a hundred years. Letting “the markets” solve climate change without reining in the companies that have been warping those markets for more than a century seems like a shaky foundation for a new economy. Decisions made today could put the country on a very different path and ensure that the Inflation Reduction Act delivers on the emissions cuts it promised, but the window of opportunity is closing.