Energy & Environment

Legislative setbacks plague Biden’s climate goals

Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster

A year after President Biden announced the goal of significantly cutting planet-warming emissions by the end of the decade, experts are warning the nation is not on track to meet them. 

The biggest hurdle, they say, is Congress’s failure to pass Biden’s climate and social spending agenda, as the provisions approved in the House version of the bill would likely have put the country on target. 

“There is not a clear path without new legislation, such as the low carbon energy tax incentives that were proposed as part of the Build Back Better bill,” Michael Greenstone, a former Obama advisor who is now a University of Chicago professor, said in a statement. 

Some of the president’s allies are holding out hope that a package with climate provisions will still be passed by this Congress.

But there’s a ticking clock: The GOP stands a good chance of winning back the House and Senate majorities in the midterms, and that could put a final stake in those hopes.

Biden marked last year’s Earth Day by announcing a national goal of cutting climate-warming emissions by 50 to 52 percent compared to where they were in 2005. 

In the months since, he has endorsed several policies aimed at getting the country there, many of which were incorporated into the Build Back Better bill that passed the House. 

Negotiations on the measure, opposed by Republicans, fell apart late last year, when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he would vote against it. Democrats need all 50 of their senators to support anything that isn’t getting GOP votes in the Senate.

“Build Back Better… would have been the major piece that would have helped us almost get to our at least 2030 targets,” said Erin Mayfield, an engineering professor at Dartmouth who has worked on modeling the potential emissions cuts from the bill.

“As of right now, we are not on track,” said Robbie Orvis, the senior director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation, an energy and climate policy think tank. “We need legislation and standards and some additional state actions.

He said it was possible — but much more difficult — to reach Biden’s goals without legislation.

“Some type of ambitious climate legislation is really important, if we don’t get it, I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to hit the target, but it becomes much, much more challenging to do it,” he said.

The administration has made a few significant regulatory moves: phasing down super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons, tightening vehicle emissions standards and imposing regulations on oil and gas.

But Orvis, studying those moves, found they could result in about 12 percent of the emissions reductions needed to hit Biden’s goals.

Steven Cohen, a Columbia University professor and former EPA analyst and consultant, argued that local and corporate actions also have a role to play in shifting the country forward on climate. 

“What happens over the next eight years, depends much more on corporate and state and local initiatives than what the federal government is going to do,” he said. 

Separately, a senior administration official earlier this week told reporters that the goal would be achieved. “We are absolutely going to meet our targets, we have confidence in that,” the official said, pointing to commitments from automakers to move towards electric vehicles and gains in wind, solar and battery storage deployment.

Cohen argued it’s more important to make progress than to hit a specific emissions number by a certain deadline. 

“We’re heading in the right direction. Whether we hit this arbitrary target or not is less important than whether we make progress,” he said

But others point out that if the targets are not met, more emissions will be released.

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force, said the consequences of not meeting the 2030 target would be the U.S. “not contributing to the solution.”

He added that the country “risks losing its newly found leadership role on the world stage.”

In recent weeks, there have been reports of restarted negotiations on a smaller congressional package. But it’s not clear which provisions from the House-passed legislation would be added into a potential new package, or whether Manchin’s support can be won.

In recent weeks, Machin has expressed support for some of the clean energy tax credits pushed by his colleagues. At the same time, he has raised concerns about the shift toward electric vehicles.

Mayfield noted that electric vehicle incentives are a major source of the package’s climate benefits, with her modeling showing more than 20 percent of the emissions cuts coming from transportation improvements. 

“Cutting transportation incentives and provisions will leave an even bigger gap in reaching our 2030 targets,” she said. 

Tags Biden agenda Build Back Better Climate change Climate change Earth Day Joe Biden Joe Biden Joe Manchin Steven Cohen

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