Radical climate bill pushes US energy to go green
After decades of inaction in the face of escalating natural disasters and sustained global warming, Congress hopes to make clean energy so cheap in every aspect of life that it’s nearly irresistible. The House is set to pass a transformative bill on Friday that would deliver the most spending to fight climate change by a single nation in a single push.
Friday’s planned action comes 34 years after a top scientist made headlines warning Congress of the dangers of global warming. In the decades since, there have been 308 weather disasters each costing the nation at least $1 billion, the hottest year record has been broken 10 times, and wildfires have burned an area larger than Texas.
The crux of the long-delayed bill, singularly pushed by Democrats in a tightly divided Congress, is to use incentives to entice investors to accelerate the expansion of clean energy such as wind and solar power, accelerating the transition away from oil, coal and gas which largely cause climate change.
The United States emitted the most heat-trapping gases into the air, burning dirty fuels cheaper than any other country. But the nearly $375 billion in climate incentives in the Cut Inflation Act are designed to dramatically reduce the already plummeting costs of renewable energy at home, on the highways and at the factory. Together, these could help reduce US carbon emissions by about two-fifths by 2030 and are expected to reduce electricity emissions by up to 80%.
Experts say it’s not enough, but it’s a great start.
“This legislation is a real game changer. It will create jobs, reduce costs, increase America’s competitiveness, reduce air pollution,” said former Vice President Al Gore, who held its first hearing on global warming 40 years ago. “The momentum that will come from this legislation cannot be underestimated.”
US action could spur other countries to do more, especially China and India, the two biggest carbon emitters along with the United States. That in turn could drive down renewable energy prices around the world, experts said.
Due to the specific legislative process in which this compromise was formed, which limits it to actions related to the budget, the bill does not regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but deals primarily with spending, most of it through tax credits and refunds to industry, consumers and utilities.
Investments work better for fostering clean energy than regulations, said Leah Stokes, professor of environmental policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The climate bill is likely to spur billions in private investment, she said: “That’s what’s going to be so transformative.”
The bill promotes vital technologies such as battery storage. Clean energy manufacturing gets a big boost. It will be cheaper for consumers to make climate-friendly purchasing decisions. There are tax credits to make electric cars more affordable, help for low-income people making energy-efficient upgrades, and incentives for rooftop solar and heat pumps.
There are also incentives for nuclear power and projects to capture and remove carbon from the atmosphere.
The bill aims to ensure that poor and minority communities that have borne the brunt of pollution benefit from climate spending. Farmers will get help to switch to climate-friendly practices and there is money for energy research and to encourage electric heavy-duty trucks instead of diesel.
The Superfund program, used to pay for the cleanup of the country’s most polluted industrial sites, will receive more revenue from a larger oil tax.
Research firm Rhodium Group estimates the bill would dramatically alter the arc of future U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing them by 31% to 44% in 2030, compared to what was expected. from 24% to 35% in 2005 without the bill. , said Rhodium partner John Larsen. Clean power on the grid, according to an upcoming Rhodium report, would increase from less than 40% now to between 60% and 81% by 2030, he said.
“It’s not as big as I would like, but it’s also bigger than anything we’ve ever done,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii who leads the Senate climate caucus. “A 40% reduction in emissions is nothing the United States has come close to before.”
As decisive as it is for US policy and emissions, it still falls short of the official US goal of roughly halving carbon pollution by 2030 to reach net zero carbon emissions across the economy by 2050.
Not everyone is impressed.
“This law is important for the United States but, globally, it is long overdue,” said Niklas Hohne, co-founder of the New Climate Institute in Germany. “The United States still has a long way to go on climate change and is starting from a very, very high level of emissions.”
When historical U.S. carbon emissions are taken into account, U.S. spending still lags Italy, France, South Korea, Japan, and Canada, according to Brian O’Callaghan, Principal Investigator at the Oxford Economic Recovery Project at the University of Oxford. He noted that the bill does nothing to fulfill America’s broken promise of billions of dollars in climate aid for poor countries.
President Joe Biden has often said America is back on the fight against climate change, but other leaders have been skeptical without any legislation to back up his claims.
And there can be disappointment. Americans hoping to buy an electric car might find many models ineligible for rebates until more components are made in the United States. Local fights over the siting of new renewable energy projects could also hamper the pace of construction, some experts said. Environmental justice communities fear they will be asked to agree to new carbon capture projects.
Republicans, who unanimously opposed the bill in the Senate, said it would increase energy costs for consumers, with House GOP Whip Steve Scalise saying it “wastes billions of dollars in the slush funds of the Green New Deal”.
Rhodium’s Larsen, who analyzed the bill numbers, said it would lead consumers to pay up to $112 less per year in energy costs.
“Since I’ve been in this game, climate progress has always resulted in higher costs for consumers. That’s not how this bill works,” Larsen said in an interview.
Democrats had no voice to spare in the equally divided Senate and Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from coal-producing West Virginia, had long dashed hopes of an ambitious deal. But two weeks ago, in the face of public shaming from environmental groups and fierce criticism even from his own colleagues, he stunned Washington by announcing his support for a bill that cuts drug costs, targets inflation and promotes renewable energy. Since announcing the deal on July 27, Manchin has been an avid cheerleader for her stint. Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona, provided the vital 50th vote, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to break the Senate tie.
The result is a 730-page bill that spends money without directly tackling fossil fuels, a disappointment to many on the left. Gore said the fossil fuel industry had for decades waged a “deeply unethical campaign to mislead people around the world”, casting doubt on the science of climate change.
The industry will face higher royalties and new charges for certain excess emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas – a rare stick among carrots. But the fossil fuel industry will remain a potent force and will have guaranteed opportunities to grow on federal lands and offshore before renewables can be built in those places.
Still, “the undeniable outcome of this will be a true expansion of wind and solar,” said Harrison Fell, a professor specializing in energy policy at North Carolina State University.
In 1988, on a hot summer day, Jim Hansen, a leading NASA climatologist, first brought the decades-old concept of global warming to public attention when he told the Congress that carbon dioxide was warming the Earth. This year has become the hottest on record. Now there have been so many warm years that it ranks 28th and Hansen said he wants his warnings about climate change not to come true.
“It is a mark of shame that it has taken so long for our political system to react,” said Bill McKibben, a longtime climate activist, adding that it leaves too much power to the fossil fuel industry. . “But it will help catalyze action elsewhere in the world; it’s a statement that hydrocarbons are finally in decline and clean energy is booming, and that the climate movement is finally at least somehow living up to Big Oil.
Michael Phillis reported from St. Louis.
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