Biden faces pressure to pass infrastructure bills before climate summit
President Biden is facing pressure to get major infrastructure legislation across the finish line ahead of a global climate summit this month.
Congress is currently working through both a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes investments in an electric vehicle charging network and public transit and a Democrat-only “social infrastructure bill” that would spend heavily on clean energy.
Summit participants are keeping a particularly close eye on the Democratic measure, which has much greater potential to deliver the kind of emissions cuts Biden has promised.
Countries are expected to negotiate the future of climate action at the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, where the U.S. will be working to restore its climate leadership after four years of inaction under the Trump administration.
Passing the sweeping Democratic spending bill would give the U.S. more credibility and leverage in negotiations as it attempts to push other countries for more action.
“It will definitely improve the hand that special envoy [John] Kerry can play at the COP negotiations in Glasgow if legislation has been passed — in fact either bill, but of course ideally both,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, who worked on climate diplomacy in the Obama administration.
“Although the Biden administration put in place a number of executive orders at the beginning of his presidency, those policies will only take the United States so far,” she said. “Legislation is really essential to be able to put the United States on track for achievement of the 2025 target and of course also the new target that President Biden announced in April for 2030.”
Former President Obama committed the U.S. to reducing its emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. President Biden in April said he hoped the U.S. would cut its emissions to 50 to 52 percent of the 2005 level by 2030.
As of 2019, U.S. emissions were down 12 percent from 2005 levels, and then dropped almost 10 percent in a single year during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the International Energy Agency has warned of a spike in global emissions this year as economies look to rebound.
Democrats are saying the infrastructure bills will help reach Biden’s more ambitious goals.
In an August “Dear Colleague” letter, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the legislation would bring the U.S. on track to cut its emissions by about 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — and with other executive and state actions, that number would reach 50 percent.
A version of the Democrats’ bill put forward in the House has a number of climate provisions, including clean energy tax credits, a fee on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and a program that would seek to shift the bulk of the country’s electric power to renewable energy through payments and fines to power providers.
But the size, scope and timeline of the bill — currently carrying a $3.5 trillion price tag — are being cast in doubt amid qualms from conservative Democrats.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has not only raised issues with the size of the bill but also with some of its climate provisions, particularly the electricity program.
Nevertheless, forces both inside and outside Congress have said they hope to have a deal across the finish line as the U.S. seeks to restore its climate credibility on the world stage in the coming weeks.
“Glasgow is a matter of weeks away. We want the president to be able to go there with a plan to meet our emissions promises and standards,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said late last month.
Climate hawk Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) echoed those comments in a press conference with colleagues and climate activists outside the Capitol.
“We must act in Congress before Joe Biden goes to meet with the rest of the world,” he said.
Asked recently whether it was important for U.S. lawmakers to get the bill done before the conference, COP26 President Alok Sharma told reporters that “being able to show progress domestically is, of course … going to be important in terms of them encouraging others to do the same.”
Others argue that it’s particularly important to deliver tangential progress after the U.S. lost credibility on climate during the Trump administration — notably with his withdrawal from the Paris agreement, which was born out of a previous global climate conference.
“The experience of seeing President Trump walk away from the Paris agreement has countries understandably nervous about the long-term reliability of the United States,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, a climate negotiator during the Obama administration.
Haverkamp, now a professor at the University of Michigan, said that the U.S. not getting the legislation done in time could make it harder for other countries to justify their own climate actions.
“The negotiators from other countries are pretty sophisticated and make themselves students of the U.S. legislative process,” she said. “But for them to have the political backing of their governments and the support of their public, it’s harder to explain if they don’t have something concrete to point to from the United States.”
And Gallagher, who is now a professor at Tufts’s Fletcher School, noted that the U.S. passing its own legislation would allow American negotiators to push other countries to “hold themselves accountable to achieving the commitments that they’ve set for themselves.”
“In a number of countries there is a growing gap between what countries have committed to do and what policies they actually have in place,” she said.
But some say it’s more important to get a good bill done than to get it done quickly, even if it means having less to show at the conference.
“In an ideal world I think we would have a good deal on climate before COP26 because that really gives President Biden and the U.S. team more leverage going into the COP to be able to push for enhanced ambition from other countries,” said Danielle Arostegui, a senior analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund, “but at the end of the day, I think it’s the substance of the bill that really matters.”