A Transformative Climate Action Framework

Putting People at the Center of Our Nation’s Clean Energy Transition

Published Jul 22, 2021

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Climate change. Environmental injustices. Racial and socioeconomic inequities. The United States has put off addressing this triad of crises for too long. Our fossil fuel-dependent energy system has had a hand in causing or contributing to each of them. And in order to tackle these problems, it is imperative the US put the well-being of people first as it decarbonizes its economy and shifts to clean energy.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and an expert advisory committee released a report that confirms that the US can and must meet its climate goals by sharply phasing down fossil fuels throughout the economy by ramping up clean energy solutions such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, and widespread electrification. To secure that clean energy transition, the report says, it is critical that we confront the racial and economic inequities inherent in our present energy system. Chief among them: fossil fuel pollution that disproportionately harms marginalized communities, many of whom have also had limited access to the benefits of clean energy and have been excluded from decisionmaking processes. Fossil fuel-dependent workers and communities that are hurt by the transition away from these fuels must also be treated fairly and receive robust support.

We can—and must—seize the opportunity to enact transformative policies and make investments that not only deliver science-based carbon emissions reductions but also ensure that the benefits are accessible and shared equitably among all communities. This report offers a framework to help guide our transition to that clean, just, and resilient economy.

Back to the report overview

A Transformative Climate Action Framework

This is a condensed, online version of the report. Access to all figures and full report are available through download of the PDF.

The climate crisis is already manifesting in devastating and costly ways worldwide, taking a disproportionate toll on communities of color and those who live in poverty. Acting together, nations must limit the worst of future climate impacts by cutting global carbon emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 (IPCC 2018; IEA 2021), and the United States must contribute its fair share to those efforts. 

Cutting fossil fuel use—a core climate solution—will also be a boon to public health. Producing, transporting, and burning these dirty fuels produces enormous amounts of harmful air, water, and soil pollution, contributing to heart and lung ailments, asthma, and cancer. From coal mining communities in Appalachia to fenceline communities living near fossil fuel–fired power plants, coal ash disposal sites, and heavy freight transportation corridors—disproportionately Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities—people suffer the deadly and destructive costs of fossil fuels that the market has failed to fully account for.  

Securing our climate goals is about much more than cutting carbon emissions. By looking beyond carbon to all the ways in which our fossil fuel–based economy affects people, we can unlock new opportunities for progress. Shifting from a fossil fuel–dependent economy to one that is powered by clean energy is an exciting opportunity to advance multiple important priorities: jobs, health, and justice. Tailoring policies and investments accordingly can help ensure these necessary changes happen quickly and the benefits accrue equitably to working people and all communities.

At the same time, history and present-day circumstances show that race, class, health, income, political power, and even traditions are deeply intertwined with our fossil fuel–based energy system. To unwind one challenge, we must unwind the others; a technological transition coupled with societal transformation is the surest path to a just and equitable achievement of our climate goals. 

This report, a collaborative effort between the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and an expert advisory committee, is motivated by a positive vision for addressing the nation’s compound crises of climate change, structural racism, and growing income inequality (Box 1). We start with fundamental guiding principles, rooted in science and justice. We next explore, through a modeling exercise, the magnitude and pace of technological change needed to drive down energy system carbon emissions; we simultaneously use those analytic findings to elevate broader economic and societal implications central to advancing multidimensional solutions that are not captured within the modeling framework. Finally, we couple those principles and pathways to highlight policy interventions that can bring substantial public health and economic benefits to communities around the country.

We urge policymakers and stakeholders at every level of our society, in every corner of our country, to seize this moment and take bold action to help make this vision a reality and put the United States on a healthier, more sustainable, and prosperous path. Policies and investments that cut carbon emissions sharply can also, if designed intentionally, advance environmental justice, support a fair transition for fossil fuel workers and communities, create millions of good-quality jobs, and promote climate resilience. Such targeted policies and investments must be prioritized within this decade and beyond. 

Box 1.

A Collaborative Partnership: Developing a Vision for a People-Centered Clean Energy Transformation.

UCS and an expert advisory committee engaged in a two-year partnership to develop a more holistic framework for a just and equitable approach to deep decarbonization of the US energy system. The advisory committee members bring a range of perspectives to this topic.

This report is a distillation of the major insights that emerged from our shared work. Its themes range wide, and we hope they provide an entry point and a strong foundation for a vision of a people-centered clean energy transition. We all believe in this vision, although there may be a diversity of views on specific policies to achieve it. This work will also be built out through additional materials responsive to a range of stakeholders’ needs.

Advisory committee members:

Ted Boettner, Senior Researcher, Ohio River Valley Institute

Chandra Farley, Director, Just Energy Partnership for Southern Equity

Brett Isaac, Founder, Navajo Power

Jackson Koeppel, Founding Executive Director, Soulardarity

Dr. Monica Unseld, Founder, Until Justice Data Partners

Dr. Shelley Welton, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina School of Law

Principles for a Transformative Energy Transition

We propose three core principles for a transformative clean energy transition (see Box 2 for our definition of clean energy). This holistic approach must:

  • effectively address the climate crisis;

  • advance equity and justice;

  • drive systemic, not just incremental, change.

These principles for what the transition ahead must aim to achieve are grounded in our understanding of how we got to this place of compounding and intersecting crises, which we describe in more detail below.

Context for Principles

The history of our country’s dependence on fossil fuels is complex, but at its heart lies an economic and political system whose incentives are heavily skewed toward corporate profits even at the expense of societal well-being—and that has significantly distorted policy choices and outcomes. Long before climate change became an urgent imperative, the immense health and environmental burden of extracting and burning fossil fuels should have clearly signaled a need for shifting to cleaner forms of energy, yet people have continued to suffer the impacts of its use. Today, 135 million people in the United States live in counties with unhealthy air, primarily a result of burning fossil fuels; people of color are over three times more likely than white people to be breathing the most polluted air (ALA 2021).

By one estimate, fine particulate matter pollution from burning coal, gasoline, and diesel kills approximately 355,000 people annually in the United States (Vohra et al. 2021). Legacy pollution from resource use—such as abandoned mine lands and oil and gas wells, coal ash disposal sites, and contaminated soils—is also an ongoing challenge for communities. The communities that have borne the brunt of the pollution from the extraction, transport, and burning of fossil fuels are disproportionately Black, Brown, Indigenous, or living in poverty, communities that have been historically marginalized and subject to systemic racism (Donaghy and Jiang 2021; Tessum et al. 2021; Thind et al. 2019).

Labor rights have been increasingly eroded, too, as unions have lost ground and family-sustaining jobs with good pay and benefits are threatened as corporations look for ever-cheaper ways of doing business. Meanwhile, record coal plant retirements in recent years have devastated the livelihoods of coal miners and the economies of coal mining communities, while some coal companies have declared bankruptcy and shirked their obligations for worker pensions and health care, as well as for cleaning up contamination from mining operations.

Past experience also shows that, without proactive and intentional investments, economic transitions can leave working people and communities behind. For example, when industries experience downturns—as the coal industry is experiencing currently—workers and host communities are often left to cope with the economic fallout on their own. As we transition away from fossil fuels, more workers and communities will be affected. As a nation, we must do much more to invest in worker training, education, new job opportunities, economic diversification, and a just social safety net that provides for essential needs such as nutrition, housing, and healthcare.

Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that to secure a low-carbon energy transition to meet climate goals, we will have to reckon with the systemic failures of the past and present. This context also provides the motivation for why we need to think beyond carbon emissions cuts to develop just and equitable climate policies.

1 Effectively address the climate crisis.

The transition to a low-carbon economy must be anchored in climate-relevant targets and timelines: cuts in heat-trapping emissions of at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero economywide emissions no later than 2050, prioritizing direct, absolute emissions reductions achieved from deep cuts in fossil fuel use which will also guarantee reductions in other harmful co-pollutants. The science shows that we will have to sharply bend the global carbon emissions curve within this decade to have a fighting chance of keeping our climate goals within reach (Cleetus and Spanger-Siegfried 2021; IEA 2021; IPCC 2018; UNFCCC 2021).

As a leading contributor to carbon emissions, the United States has a particular responsibility to cut its emissions deeply and rapidly. The Biden administration has committed to cut US emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (White House 2021a), a significant step forward that calls for a sharp turn away from fossil fuels. More will be needed in the years ahead—including further emissions cuts and international climate finance for developing countries—to meet our fair share contribution to global climate action (USCAN 2020).

Even if we achieve our most ambitious carbon targets, however, current and past emissions will still force us to confront significant and worsening climate impacts that threaten severe and inequitable societal disruption. Thus, we must also invest in enhancing climate resilience to extreme heat, floods, droughts, wildfires, rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, and other climate impacts. Approaches that put the health and well-being of people first must be prioritized, including by ensuring that essential energy infrastructure is climate-resilient.

2 Advance equity and justice.

A just and fair clean energy transition must be informed by a holistic set of priorities, processes, and metrics that incorporates public health, jobs, and environmental justice priorities and shifts power and decisionmaking to communities (BGA 2019; EJNCF 2019; EPA n.d.; Welton and Eisen 2019). Equity and justice require that all people are protected from environmental, climate, and economic harms that may present in our current energy system and as we transition away from it, and that they have equal access to decision making related to that transition.

This is about both an outcome we must strive for, as well as a process for how to get there. Just and equitable outcomes are achieved (1) by promoting inclusive community participation in, and governance over, policy and resource decisions; (2) by recognizing and countering past and ongoing environmental injustices; (3) by ensuring equitable access to the clean energy transition’s benefits; (4) by proactively addressing the environmental sustainability of energy materials, supply chains, and deployment choices (Gignac 2020) as well as human rights issues associated with securing critical components; and (5) by providing intentional, robust, and sustained investments in workers and communities displaced by energy system transitions (Richardson and Anderson 2021).

3 Drive systemic, not just incremental, change.

To rapidly decarbonize our economy in a people-centered way, we will need an accelerated and unprecedented shift to clean energy, as well as societal shifts that enable sustainable consumption, production, and development patterns. We need new investments in a modernized, expanded grid; new incentives in our energy system that reward carbon-free and pollution-free energy; and new forms of governance that ensure all communities, particularly those that have been historically marginalized, can thrive in the new clean energy economy. We will have to take on powerful fossil fuel interests and democratize the decision making processes and the benefits produced by our energy system.

Analyses and policies must go beyond the status quo and challenge market rules and structures that impede rapid and equitable deployment of clean energy. A scan of the energy landscape today shows that the costs of renewable energy are dropping dramatically, and, in many places, renewables are the cheapest form of new power that can be installed. Yet, current market structures, subsidies, and governance systems tend to prop up fossil fuels and reinforce status quo decisions, including keeping uneconomic coal plants running, promoting a rush to natural gas, and doubling down on infrastructure for gasoline-powered vehicles. Market rules and prices fail to account for the public health and climate costs of fossil fuels—especially the cumulative pollution burden in environmental justice communities—resulting in outcomes that harm people and the planet.

Additional needs include promoting community and cooperative ownership models (Welton 2017); driving innovation at all levels—technology, policy, and society; and sharply phasing down fossil fuel infrastructure and use, including by dismantling the outsized power of the fossil fuel industry and electric utilities and loosening their grip on the nation’s energy choices at the federal, state, and local levels. To avoid replicating the harms of the past as we shift to cleaner forms of energy, policies and investments must be prioritized for historically disadvantaged communities, such as through the Justice40 initiative announced by the Biden administration (White House 2021b; Justice40 2021). 1

Box 2.

A Clean Energy System Requires Thinking beyond Carbon Emissions.

Although the terms clean energy and low- or zero-carbon energy are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to look beyond carbon emissions and to carefully distinguish between different forms of energy based on their overall environmental, public health, and social impacts.

Coal, oil, gas, and waste incineration are neither low-carbon nor clean energy sources. Appropriately sited renewable forms of energy generation—such as wind and solar—that are used in a sustainable manner are the cleanest resources we have: they produce little to no heat-trapping emissions or other air, water, and soil pollution and have low environmental and social risks overall. Nuclear power and fossil fuel-fired generation with carbon capture and storage (CCS), on the other hand, are low-carbon energy sources but pose additional and significant environmental, public health, and social impacts. For other resources, such as bioenergy and hydropower, project design and level of resource use matters: some applications will have high environmental and social impacts while others can meet stringent sustainability, public health, and environmental standards.

Recognizing these differences is important for policymakers, communities, and other stakeholders as we make choices about cleaning up our energy system and strive to mitigate its remaining harmful impacts on people and the environment.

Exploring Carbon Reduction Pathways to Probe Broader Transition Implications

We propose three core principles for a transformative clean energy transition (see Box 2 for our definition of clean energy). This holistic approach must:

  • effectively address the climate crisis;

  • advance equity and justice;

  • drive systemic, not just incremental, change.

These principles for what the transition ahead must aim to achieve are grounded in our understanding of how we got to this place of compounding and intersecting crises, which we describe in more detail below.

Carbon Reduction Modeling and Assumptions

There are two primary levers for reducing energy carbon emissions: (1) changing the ways in which energy is used and (2) cleaning up the ways in which that energy is produced. The first covers energy efficiency, structural changes enabling lower overall energy demand, and direct displacement of fossil fuels through end use electrification; the second covers switching from fossil fuels to lower- or non-emitting energy sources and technologies. Remaining emissions have the potential to be countered via natural and technological negative emissions approaches, which remove heat-trapping emissions from the atmosphere. Studies show that these approaches, while at varying levels of readiness today, will likely be needed to keep global average temperature increases well below 2°C and achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century (IPCC 2018; NAS 2018).

To analyze possible carbon reduction pathways, we used a set of energy models developed by Evolved Energy Research allowing for the paired exploration of these demand-side and supply-side options for achieving carbon reduction targets (EnergyPATHWAYS and RIO, respectively). Outside of the energy modeling framework, we also make assumptions about deep cuts in non-carbon dioxide (CO2) heat-trapping emissions and that the land sink continues to absorb CO2 at current levels. We describe key carbon constraints underpinning the analysis in Table 1 (see PDF download); additional model details and assumptions can be found in the technical appendix. These carbon constraints are applied throughout the analysis.

High-Level Findings from Carbon-Reduction Pathways

The carbon targets implemented here are ambitious, but this modeling makes clear that they can be technically achieved at reasonable costs, especially when weighed against the towering climate and health costs of a business-as-usual pathway. Every economic sector has to take action, and each has options available that are commercially available today to deeply reduce carbon emissions. This assessment of technical feasibility broadly aligns with several recent studies that have explored technological deep decarbonization pathways (EDF 2021; Hultman et. al 2021; Larson et al. 2020; NAS 2021; NRDC 2021; Orvis and Mahajan 2021).

We highlight five key findings from the carbon pathways analysis, which set the stage for more detailed consideration below:

1 Deep cuts in heat-trapping emissions are feasible, within this decade and continuing through 2050, in line with rigorous climate targets.

2 To achieve these reductions, every sector of the economy must undergo transformative shifts, including through widespread uptake of energy efficiency, end-use electrification, and carbon-free energy (Figure 1); additional contributions are critical from nonmodeled emissions sources and sinks. Incremental technological improvements are ultimately vital for keeping costs low, but novel technologies were not found to be required to meet climate targets; a viable solution set is within our grasp today.

3 The system costs of this transition are comparatively modest—and easily outweighed when compared to the benefits of improved health and avoided climate impacts. Savings from reduced fossil fuel expenditures will either nearly or entirely offset system investments; still, near-term capital outlays could impact consumers if not proactively managed.

4 The technological path to meeting near-future carbon reduction targets is increasingly clear; the path to midcentury increases in uncertainty but provides important context for anticipating required change and laying the groundwork for it in advance. Delaying necessary near-term action is costly and risks stranding assets, foreclosing some solutions pathways, and probably falling short of climate goals.

5 Pathways for reducing carbon provide insights, not precise solutions; broader frameworks are required to shape pathway implementation and advance additional transition elements to achieve transformative change.

6 The exact path from here to 2050 is uncertain, but this analysis makes clear that we are equipped to pursue ambitious climate targets. It also highlights the pressing need to act; uncertainty in later decades does not diminish the increasing clarity of required near-term actions. And throughout, we see that a singular focus on carbon as opposed to broader systems will miss addressing the bigger picture.

This is a condensed, online version of the report. Access to all figures and full report are available through download of the PDF.


Baek, Y., T. Boettner, R. Cleetus, S. Clemmer, C. Esquivia-Zapata, C. Farley, B. Isaac, J. Koeppel, J. Martin, J. McNamara, C. Pinto de Moura, S. Sathia, S. Sattler, M. Unseld, and S. Welton. 2021. A Transformative Climate Action Framework: Putting People at the Center of Our Nation’s Clean Energy Transition. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy-transformation

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