We need a US climate law

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American climate leadership has sharply zigzagged between Republican and Democratic presidential administrations for a quarter-century. It’s critical to stop this equivocating now. Congress must pass a definitive climate law, not only to ensure a steadier leadership role internationally but also because it is a prerequisite for a more globally competitive U.S. economy. It’s time for bipartisanship. Even if whatever emerges won’t be adequate initially to halt climate change, it is the only way the U.S. can win the race for the low-carbon markets and ensure its global economic competitiveness that sustains its international leadership.

Thirty countries have passed formal climate legislation, including New Zealand (2002), the United Kingdom (2008), Brazil (2009) and Denmark (2019). The European Parliament will consider a climate law this spring, which includes border tax adjustments against countries without comparable laws. It’s no longer true that climate laws are risky or don’t work. By continually updating its Climate Change Act of 2008, the U.K. has achieved a 45 percent reduction below 1990 levels, and plans to achieve 68 percent by 2030. Germany did not have an overarching climate law originally, but by stitching together smaller pieces of legislation and then ultimately passing a climate law and related carbon tax in 2019, Germany has reduced its emissions 36 percent below 1990 levels. It plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

For decades, the United States has taken a stitch-it-together approach. It has relied on a patchwork of laws and policies at the federal level that provide limited and specific authorities to the executive branch, which Democratic presidents exercise and Republican ones don’t. Many holes remain in this patchwork quilt and as a result, U.S. emissions peaked in 2007 but remain 2 percent above 1990 levels

The U.S. competitive position in low-carbon technologies and industries has eroded, and U.S. firms and workers are not economically benefiting as they should be from the global energy transition. There is one American firm among the top 10 solar firms (seven are Chinese) based on global market share. There is one American firm in the top five list of lithium-ion battery companies by capacity (two are Chinese, one is Japanese). The U.S. must invest in innovation and construct a market-based industrial policy that supports U.S. firms and workforce while holding them accountable for performance.

The Republican excuse that the United States cannot take climate action because it will damage our competitive position vis-à-vis China is clearly a falsehood. While it is true that China’s dependence on coal-fired generation continues to be a global climate problem, China has been more successful than the United States in domestically deploying and exporting renewable energy technology, building new nuclear capacity, and propelling a thriving electric car industry. Chinese emissions have yet to peak but the country has outdone the United States in positioning itself to dominate in low-carbon products and metals processing that will be demanded across the globe. 

There is no obvious U.S. policy pathway to 50 percent by 2030 given existing regulatory authorities, the target rumored to be under consideration by the Biden administration as they prepare for the April 22 climate summit. Members of Congress must find the middle ground to attract the two- thirds of the U.S. Senate necessary to pass climate legislation. The viability of continued American economic and geopolitical leadership is at stake. A new climate law will stop the vacillation and lawsuits, concentrate our collective effort on what is a sensible approach, and allow us to regain our leadership position technologically, economically and in soft power.

A law also will allow us the opportunity to think constructively about how to make the transition from fossil energy to low-carbon energy in a way that is fair to the workers, communities and states who depend on fossil energy industries. Rather than just letting the market forces and the climate policies of other countries gradually punish them, the U.S. should take a proactive approach to planning and managing the transition. These communities depend on royalties and tax revenue to support their schools, local roads, public safety and more. Workers can’t easily pick up and move to new jobs, even if they have the training. It will take an effort by Congress to create a framework that is fair and geographically inclusive. Meanwhile, we are wasting precious tax dollars cleaning up after climate disasters state-by-state, rather than preventing the damages in the first place (and creating local construction jobs while doing so).

We are running out of time because, after all, 2050 is only 29 years away. This low-carbon transition is inevitable, but the question is whether it will be smooth, orderly and cost-effective or chaotic, drastic and expensive for the U.S workforce. A law that clarifies our goal of net zero by mid-century will allow us to establish a national carbon budget and provide the much-needed clear signal to the private sector that they must pivot to solutions that will save American jobs. It also will prove to the world that we are serious about doing our part, which will immeasurably strengthen our hand internationally. 

Kelly Sims Gallagher is professor and director of the Climate Policy Lab at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. Follow her on Twitter @kellysgallagher.

Tags Carbon neutrality Climate change mitigation Climate change policy Low-carbon economy

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