On Earth Day, April 22, President Joe Biden hosted a global climate change summit to highlight that the United States is back in the climate policy game and to encourage greater climate ambition among other countries. Just over 100 days after starting his administration, Biden has largely put his cards on the table in terms of his climate goals and plans to achieve them. The big question is whether he will be able to overcome difficult political challenges on one of his fundamental problems.
Biden’s climate commitment
A little background on the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is helpful here. It has a “bring your own goals” structure. Each member country commits to reducing its emissions, called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). The sum of these promises is the “meat” of the deal. Commitments submitted prior to the 2015 agreement were not sufficient to meet its overall goal – limiting the average global temperature rise to less than 2 ° C, ideally below 1.5 ° C. However, the Accord calls for updates to the NDCs every five years with the expectation that they will become more ambitious over time, driven by technological improvements and cost reductions, as well as peer pressure. These updated CDNs, ideally more ambitious, are expected before the COP26 conference in early November of this year.
President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, but Biden joined the agreement on his first day in office. Since Biden’s election and inauguration, America’s new NDC has been a hot topic of discussion between climate experts and concerned citizens around the world. And it’s finally here, published on April 21 prior to the Earth Day Climate Summit. The NDC announcement provided the Biden administration with an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to climate action, to national voters and around the world.
In the months following the election, environmentalists generally agreed that the US NDC should reduce its emissions by at least 50% by 2030 (starting with a benchmark year 2005, the peak year for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States). They have made their wish come true – the NDC promises cuts of 50% to 52% from 2005, which corresponds to cuts of 39% to 45% from 2020. But the question I am asking myself is: How? ‘Or’ What? Nine years is not much time for such a profound transformation.
The NDC itself has little to say about the policies that will be used to achieve reductions, instead describing sectors with significant emissions and potential ways to reduce them. This is normal – the The European Union presented its own NDC in December 2020, but the implementation plan is still under review and is expected to be released in June. (The US NDC is less ambitious than that of the EU, which promises similar emission reduction percentages, but from the smaller 1990 base.)
Several studies, including University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability, the Environmental defense fund, and the Asia Policy Institute and Climate Analytics, describe how the United States could achieve the level of reduction promised in the NDC. The plans describe different combinations of policy mechanisms, but demonstrate that the promised reduction is achievable – albeit very difficult.
Unlike the European Union, a national carbon price is not an option for the moment. A price for carbon, through a tax or a cap-and-trade program, would require legislation from Congress. And such legislation has no chance of passing the current Congress. Without a carbon price, sector policies must bear the burden of reducing emissions.
Sectoral emission reductions
For the most part, the Biden administration has already proposed the programs it plans to use to achieve the emission reductions promised in the US NDC. the American employment plan that the White House released on March 31 is the closest thing to a “climate bill” that we will likely see ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. It contains a number of elements that would contribute to significant emission reductions. Further reductions will likely come from programs the administration can implement on its own, without Congress.
The electricity sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, constituting 25%, and the biggest area of emission reduction in any analysis I’ve seen. President Biden has set a goal of a carbon-free electricity system by 2035 and the U.S. Jobs Plan is leading the way toward that goal with a clean electricity standard, electricity tax credits and zero-carbon energy storage; and investments in the transmission capacity needed to modernize and reshape the US electricity grid.
The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States at 29%, but it is more difficult to decarbonize than electricity. Nonetheless, significant transport reductions are needed in any plan to achieve the US NDC. The policy focuses on the electrification of vehicles, which will gradually reduce emissions as the electricity supply decarbonises. Light-duty vehicles are the easiest type to electrify, and the U.S. Jobs Plan focuses on programs to overcome the chicken-and-egg challenge of electric vehicle adoption – consumers don’t. will not buy vehicles without more charging stations, but building a charging infrastructure is not profitable. until there are more electric vehicles on the road. The American Jobs Plan proposes to support the construction of 500,000 charging stations, to make electric vehicles more affordable through discounts and tax incentives, and to purchase electric vehicles for the federal fleet. The reduction in vehicle miles traveled through investments in public transit and cycling infrastructure is also included. In addition to the policies included in the U.S. Jobs Plan, the Biden administration has also pledged to deliver more stringent vehicle fuel economy standards by the end of July 2021. The administration has the power to take this step without Congress, under existing law.
Studies showing how the United States could reduce emissions rely on various other programs for the remaining emission reductions (about a quarter of the total) still needed after electricity and transportation. Greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide account for 20% of U.S. emissions (on a carbon dioxide equivalent basis, since these gases tend to be much more potent in their warming potential). Congress is helping here, as the The Senate has already voted in favor of using the Congressional Review Act to restore Obama-era regulations on methane emissions, and the House will likely follow. The Environmental Protection Agency also announced a rule greatly reducing hydrofluorocarbon emissions (HFC), powerful greenhouse gases used as refrigerants. Congress has already agreed to these reductions at the end of 2020. The US Jobs Plan outlines programs to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, research into clean industrial processes, and increasing natural carbon sinks such as forests.
The challenge of legislation
Although the administration has a plan to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, success is still far from certain. The methane and HFC reductions already approved by Congress have broad support in regulated industries. Raising vehicle efficiency standards also has a relatively clear path to implementation. But the US jobs plan is already facing Republican opposition, even before it was written into a bill, part of the wider Republicans’ climate intransigence. Most of the provisions involve tax credits or government spending, the kind of actions that can be passed in the Senate through a budget reconciliation with 50 votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said that she believes that a clean electricity standard could also be adopted by reconciliation. However, reconciliation would require all 50 Democratic senators to remain united – and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has previously said that it does not support pass legislation that way – or for at least one Senate Republican to cross the aisle.
President Biden has come a long way in a short space of time in formulating his climate goals and policy. Studies suggest that the goals are very ambitious, but potentially achievable, and that the biggest obstacles are political. Republicans in Congress might find something to like by supporting popular technologies, like clean energy or electric vehicles, but so far that’s not happening.