What is Decarbonization

Decarbonization is the act of reducing carbon emissions. This definition on the surface seems broad but shows that there are many ways to limit carbon use. To effectively meet carbon reduction goals, we’ll have to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment, transportation sector, energy generation and large industry and manufacturing.  

Why Decarbonization Matters in the Midwest

Decarbonization is especially important in the Midwest given the region’s reliance on natural gas and carbon-based resources for electricity generation. While the region’s utilities have made substantial progress in reducing their reliance on coal, the Midwest still gets most of its electricity from coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels. In addition to electricity generation, the Midwest is incredibly dependent on natural gas. The Midwest leads the country in natural gas usage, as 70% of Midwestern households use natural gas for space heating, 60% for water heating and 40% for cooking

The transition away from these resources is expected to accelerate given federal funding and tax credits from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Setting & Tracking Decarbonization Goals in the Midwest

State Policies and Goals

Some Midwestern states have passed legislation on decarbonization targets, while other states’ governors have issued executive orders to set goals. Most of these decarbonization targets address electricity generation, with some states enabling or encouraging electrification of gas-powered end uses, and do not tackle economy-wide decarbonization. Each state views decarbonization differently by considering different resources as clean. For example, some states will allow utilities to continue to generate from carbon-based resources if they capture and sequester the carbon, whereas others mandate entirely renewable portfolios.


With the 2021 passage of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, Illinois established a goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, with interim targets of 40% by 2030 and 50% by 2040.


In 2023, the state enacted legislation that requires electric utilities to get 100% of the electricity they generate or acquire from carbon-free sources by 2040. The law sets interim targets of 80% carbon-free power in 2030 and 90% in 2035.  


Michigan also passed a carbon-free standard in 2023. SB 271 requires utilities to have a portfolio of 60% renewable energy by 2035, 80% clean energy by 2035 and 100% clean by 2040.

Other Goals

While not as strong as binding legislation, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued Executive Order #38 in 2019, which sets a goal that all electricity consumed within the state is carbon-free by 2050.  

Nebraska is the only state served exclusively by public power. The state’s three main utilities—Lincoln Electric System, Nebraska Public Power District and Omaha Public Power District—have all set goals of net-zero carbon emissions from generation resources by mid-century, meaning the state effectively has a statewide goal of clean electricity generation.

Municipal Policies and Goals

Many municipalities in our region have enacted decarbonization goals. Unlike state goals, which traditionally focus on electricity generation, municipalities often focus their decarbonization efforts on their building stock as buildings are the primary generator of carbon emissions in many cities. 

Building Performance Standards and Benchmarking are commonly included in municipal policies and goals to tackle decarbonization. Benchmarking allows building owners and operators to see how their building is performing and where they can make improvements, thus lowering the carbon their building is responsible for. 

Decarbonization Strategies

There are multiple strategies to reduce carbon emissions, and each sector will have its own challenges and opportunities to decarbonize at scale. Strategies include:  

While there is a national push to electrify, electrification only makes sense as a decarbonization strategy if the grid is utilizing clean resources. In order to meet the Midwest region’s demand, we’ll first have to maximize energy efficiency and have both gas and electric utilities explore clean alternative generation. Energy efficiency is a critical component to decarbonization: reducing energy reduces emissions, regardless of what the source fuel is.

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to reach decarbonization goals, however there is broad consensus that without prioritization, historically disinvested communities will be left behind in the clean energy transition, making it imperative that any decarbonization goal center equitable deployment.