US energy system transitions under cumulative emissions budgets


Cumulative emissions budgets are increasingly being used by decision-makers and analysts to understand emissions reductions and associated transitions in the context of long-term goals such as limiting global mean temperature increase over the century to 1.5 or 2 °C. While previous studies have explored the implications of such budgets for the global economy, few studies have conducted regional- and national-level analyses. This paper explores budgets through 2050 consistent with the 1.5 and 2 °C long-term temperature goals in the context of the USA. We employ a state-level model of the USA embedded within a global human-Earth system model (GCAM-USA) to study the implications of such budgets for the US energy system. Our results show that achieving the stringent budgets entails accelerated deployment of energy conserving technology, almost complete decarbonization of the power sector, increased electrification of buildings and industrial end-use sectors, and decarbonization of transport employing a combination of electrification and the substitution of fossil fuels for bioenergy. We also find substantial state-level differences in the relative roles of these decarbonization strategies. Furthermore, our results highlight that increased ambition in the near term will be valuable in setting the stage for smoother transformations in the future to achieve stringent budgets.

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  1. 1.

    For instance, a recent study shows that considering the role of non-CO2 emissions (and hence resulting radiative forcing) is important to improve the approximations of global temperature change based on cumulative emissions or emissions budget (Feijoo et al. 2019).

  2. 2.

    At the time of this analysis, the Clean Power Plan was a final regulation undergoing court review. At the time of submission, the US Environmental Protection Agency had filed Proposal to Repeal the Clean Power Plan (16 Oct. 2017; see

  3. 3.

    For comparison, electricity’s share of building final energy in the NoPolicy scenario is 58%.

  4. 4.

    Electrification rate is defined as final energy consumption from electricity divided by total final energy consumption for a given sector.

  5. 5.

    Transportation sector electrification ranges from 4.0 to 7.3% among the 48 contiguous states in 2050.

  6. 6.

    Note that GCAM-USA considers a unique carbon price in the USA, which is imposed to all states. Electrification rates are driven by cost, and no bounds on the levels or rates of electrification have been considered in this research.

  7. 7.

    This excludes Hawaii and DC, which are significant outliers.


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This work is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 642147 (CD-LINKS).

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Correspondence to Gokul Iyer.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on 'National Low-Carbon Development Pathways' edited by Roberto Schaeffer, Valentina Bosetti, Elmar Kriegler, Keywan Riahi, Detlef van Vuuren, and John Weyant.

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Feijoo, F., Iyer, G., Binsted, M. et al. US energy system transitions under cumulative emissions budgets. Climatic Change 162, 1947–1963 (2020).

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  • Cumulative emissions budget
  • Deep decarbonization
  • Nationally determined contribution
  • Global Change Assessment Model