• Many of the largest US electric utilities have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • These pledged reductions could reduce power sector emissions by a third as compared to 2018 levels.
  • “The biggest variable here will be whether utilities actually meet their pledged goals,” says North Carolina State University Professor Christopher Galik.

An analysis of pledges made by many of the largest US electric utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions suggests that pledged reductions could reduce power sector emissions by a third as compared to 2018 levels.

The researchers also found that about one-seventh of the cuts to greenhouse gas emission (GHG) utilities have promised are reductions they would have to make anyway due to existing state requirements.

“In the absence of comprehensive federal requirements, a lot of large utilities have made voluntary pledges to reduce GHG emissions,” says Christopher Galik, an associate professor of public administration at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of the study in One Earth.

“The challenge that we address in this work is to do a comprehensive accounting of what these utility pledges—assuming they are met—might collectively achieve in terms of new, net aggregate GHG emission reductions.

“One reason that this is so challenging is that the pledges are all framed and tracked differently, so it’s like comparing apples to oranges,” Galik says. “What’s more, it wasn’t previously clear how much these pledges go beyond requirements that call for renewable energy production or emission reductions at the state level.”

charts showing how greenhouse gases warm our planet
The problem of greenhouse gases.
Image: NRDC

To address these issues, the researchers examined 36 major electric utility pledges stretching across dozens of subsidiaries and operating territories in 43 states.

“We found that about a seventh of the pledged emission reductions were redundant—utilities would have made those cuts anyway under existing state requirements,” Galik says.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

“However, that means there’s still significant potential to go above and beyond what utilities would be required to do. This is particularly important in those parts of the country where there are no existing renewable energy production or GHG reduction requirements on the books.”

Altogether, if utilities actually meet their pledged goals, the power sector’s emissions could go down more than 30% by 2050, compared to 2018 levels.

“The biggest variable here will be whether utilities actually meet their pledged goals,” Galik says.

“But because climate change is such a pressing concern, it’s still important to understand the potential impact of these pledges, particularly to inform future policy decisions at the federal level. In other words, if you want to develop policies to really move the needle, you need to know where things may already be headed.”