When President-elect Joe Biden took the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, Saturday night to deliver his victory speech, he promised to "marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope” to fight the novel coronavirus, revive the economy, achieve racial justice—and protect the climate. The former vice president’s transition website calls for net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050, a lofty goal required to keep greenhouse gas emissions from causing the 2 degrees Celsius warming that scientists say will result in catastrophic climate-related disruptions, droughts, and storms by the end of the century.
Biden says he can save the climate while boosting jobs. He wants the federal government to rebuild roads, bridges, and buildings to make them more environmentally friendly; plug abandoned oil and gas wells to prevent emissions of planet-warming methane and carbon dioxide; build new electric-vehicle charging stations and roll out electric buses in every city with more than 100,000 residents; and launch a Climate Conservation Corps—among other things. It’s a super ambitious plan. But given the gridlock on Capitol Hill during the past six years, and the fact that, despite the push for a Green New Deal by some Democrats last year, no major environmental legislation has passed Congress since 1990, will any of Biden’s green plans even get off the ground?
Environmental groups hope that Biden will at least get the climate bus rolling in the right direction, while acknowledging that federal legislation might be a bridge too far. Even if the two disputed Senate seats in Georgia somehow flip to the Democrats, that would leave a 50-50 tie, with incoming vice president Kamala Harris as the tie breaker. But under current Senate rules, any non-spending bills require 60 votes to clear a filibuster challenge, meaning that climate bills would need to overcome that higher hurdle. The only shortcut is if climate measures are folded into a must-pass spending bill that only requires 51 votes.
Combining climate bills and a coronavirus stimulus package might be the winning ticket, according to Andrew Light, a former climate negotiator in the Obama-era State Department and now a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank. “That is a place where you could imagine some possibility,” Light says. He notes that more than 10 percent of former president Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package in 2009 went to climate-related spending, including clean energy innovation and renovation of the nation’s electrical grid. If Biden can get Congress to pass his trillion-dollar stimulus plan, earmarking 10 percent of that to fight climate change “can add up and be impactful,” Light says.
Many observers say that Biden will have a better chance at pushing his climate agenda through executive orders that don’t require congressional approval. Obama allowed California to require cleaner automobile tailpipe standards under such an executive order, an order that President Donald Trump promptly canceled and is now being fought in court. Trump also reversed Obama’s Clean Power Plan that would have cut greenhouse emissions produced by electric utilities and halted efforts to reduce climate-warming chemicals from refrigerants known as hydrofluorocarbons.
For his part, Biden says he will reverse Trump’s anti-climate executive orders. On day one, Biden says, he will get the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement, which places voluntary limits on nations’ greenhouse gas emissions. The country officially exited the Paris accord on November 4. He also plans to sign separate orders to ban new oil and gas drilling on federal lands and cancel the Keystone XL pipeline.
Trump’s climate reversals, if left unchecked, will result in an additional 1.8 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2035, about one-third of the US total, according to a recent study from the Rhodium Group, an independent energy research and analysis group. Study author John Larsen, a former policy analyst in the Department of Energy, says that the best climate bang for the buck comes from boosting mileage standards for US automobiles. And the biggest driver of that action might come from states, not Congress.
For decades, the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed California a waiver from national standards on automobile mileage and emissions standards. That waiver has allowed automakers to sell cleaner cars in the Golden State to combat both toxic air pollution and greenhouse gases. But it was canceled by Trump. California has filed lawsuits over the issue for the past several years, and California governor Gavin Newsom has also issued his own executive order requiring automakers to sell 100 percent electric vehicles in the state by 2035. Larsen says getting other US states to follow California’s lead on greener cars will be important to meet the US’ overall emissions goals. “You need to make progress on these harder tasks or we are going to run out of time,” Larsen says.
At the same time, climate policy experts say the last, best hope may lie with cities, states, and forward-looking businesses whose leaders realize that protecting jobs and the environment go together. These kinds of smaller efforts would have to be combined with a broader push for more federal investment in carbon-busting technologies that both parties have traditionally supported, such as carbon capture and storage, and developing greener industrial processes.
“It’s unlikely for Biden to get the kind of massive comprehensive climate law that many others have been seeking for a long time,” says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at New York University and the author of 13 books on climate change. “A great deal can be done by a combination of federal action under existing authority, state and local action, and private action. Whether it will be enough is a difficult question.”
Gerrard notes that some Republicans in Congress have supported carbon capture and storage, a method to grab greenhouse gases from existing power plants and factories and store them underground. Congress did pass a bipartisan bill that authorized $50 million to research carbon capture in 2019, and state officials in oil states like Texas are considering ways to reduce their carbon footprint by considering the idea of burying emissions from Gulf oil rigs in the seafloor.
In Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards just convened the state’s first climate change task force to figure out how to get to net zero emissions by the year 2050. Louisiana's vulnerable coastline has been wracked by destructive hurricanes during the past two decades, damage made worse by rising sea levels attributed to climate change. Edwards and task force members want the state’s valuable oil and gas industry to be part of the solution, says Harry Vorhoff, deputy director in the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities. “Coastal Louisiana is really the canary in the coal mine of climate change,” Vorhoff says.
Big energy firms like BP, Shell, and Exxon have pledged to cut emissions at their Louisiana refineries over time, he adds. One of the world’s biggest fertilizer manufacturers, CF Industries, announced a new “green ammonia” facility in Louisiana that will cut carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2030 using hydrogen instead of methane in its fertilizer. “If we do this right, we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but we can ride the next wave of economic opportunity,” Vorhoff says.
Perhaps it’s green industries that will pull the climate bus out of the Washington swamp and on the road to a brighter environmental future. That’s the thinking of Steve Melink, founder and CEO of a Cincinnati firm that redesigns ventilation and heating systems for big chains like Walmart and McDonalds to save both energy and money. “As a businessman, I’m not going to wait around for the government.” says Melink, who has testified before legislators in Ohio and Washington in favor of a carbon tax to clean up emissions. “I recognize that my fellow conservatives are the ones holding back the vision of a clean-energy economy. I tell them that the opportunity is bigger than the problem, and we are holding ourselves back.”