When news broke on Friday evening that the White House was cutting the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) from President Biden’s budget to appease Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist West Virginia Democrat, environmental experts were quick to identify the global implications for the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Joe Manchin just launched a hand grenade at Glasgow,” tweeted Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. “W/out a clean energy standard in the reconciliation package, Biden admin cannot meet pledge of 50% reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by 2030. And international climate negotiations begin to collapse.”
Since the United States is the world’s largest economy and the biggest cumulative contributor to climate change, if it doesn’t go to the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow next month with policies in place to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by Biden’s target of 50 percent by 2030, it won’t be in a good position to ask other large emitters such as China to increase the ambition of their climate plans. And, without such an increase, the world will remain on its current trajectory to blow past the 2 degrees Celsius of global warming that scientists have said it is essential to stay below.
“This will create a huge problem for the White House in Glasgow,” David G. Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, told the New York Times. “If you see the president coming in and saying all the right things with all the right aspirations, and then one of the earliest tests of whether he can deliver falls apart, it creates the question of whether you can believe him.”
Since Republicans in the Senate will filibuster any freestanding climate change legislation, the only opportunity for Democrats to pass measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions is in the budget reconciliation bill currently making its way through Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi previously has called for it to pass by the end of October so that Biden can go to the conference in Glasgow, also known as COP26, with strong climate actions in hand.
“[Biden] will go to Glasgow, and we want him to do so with legislation that is passed — that helps, again, confirm our commitment to the Paris accords by honoring our commitment for emissions standards,” she said at a late September press conference, referring to the existing U.N. climate agreement, struck in Paris in 2015, that committed the world to a 2°C cap on emissions but only saw nations commit to emissions trajectories that will lead to at least 2.7°C of warming by the end of this century. Biden’s Build Back Better climate agenda could be, Pelosi added, “a model for the world.”
Of the bill’s provisions to cut climate pollution, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would reward utilities for switching to clean energy and penalize them for continued reliance on fossil fuels, would deliver the biggest impact, according to modeling by a coalition of environmental advocacy organizations and think tanks. Moving to a completely clean electricity generation system would also enable other measures in the legislation to deliver bigger benefits. For example, electric cars still cause climate pollution if they draw from a coal- or gas-fired electricity grid, so tax incentives to speed up the transition to electric vehicles will achieve more with a cleaner electricity system already in place.
One of the main challenges in international climate negotiations is that no country wants to cut its own emissions and still see catastrophic climate change because other countries don’t. The United States lags far behind the European Union in cutting emissions. So other large emitters that are reluctant to risk interfering with their economic growth by making strong climate pledges in Glasgow may be waiting to see what the U.S. does.
“If the U.S. is able to come to COP with a reconciliation bill passed and historic investments in climate included, it would have a hugely beneficial impact on Glasgow,” Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the United Nations Foundation, who served as a climate adviser in the Obama White House, told Yahoo News.
“That’s like the million-dollar question,” Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Yahoo News. “If there’s a clear sign that the main climate provisions that are going to drive emissions towards 50 percent are still intact and there’s support for that, that obviously gives the U.S. a huge leg up in trying to encourage other countries to step forward.”
Environmental advocates aren’t giving up hope on the CEPP yet. Due to their razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress, Democrats need to keep both their left and centrist wings in support of the reconciliation package in order to pass it, and green-minded members of the House and Senate are threatening to withdraw their support if Manchin gets his way. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who led the writing of the clean energy legislation, told the New York Times that she wouldn’t support a bill that fails to achieve Biden’s climate goals.
“We must have strong climate action in the Build Back Better budget,” she said. “I’m open to all approaches, but as I’ve said, I will not support a budget deal that does not get us where we need to go on climate action. There are 50 Democratic senators and it’s going to take every one of our votes to get this budget passed.”
Congressional progressives are incensed because the budget has been paired with a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes ongoing subsidies for fossil fuel development.
“We cannot advance legislation that makes the climate crisis worse. The Exxon-designed ‘bipartisan’ infrastructure plan worsens emissions, but pairing it w/clean energy in Build Back Better neutralizes BIF’s harm and lets us tackle the climate crisis. We cannot afford to gut it,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a left-wing Democrat from New York. (“BIF” is an acronym for the infrastructure bill.)
The New York Times, which first reported the news of the CEPP’s removal from the reconciliation package, reported that Manchin “has told the White House that he strongly opposes the clean electricity program.”
“White House staffers are now rewriting the legislation without that climate provision, and are trying to cobble together a mix of other policies that could also cut emissions,” the newspaper reported.
Manchin has strong political and personal incentives to resist phasing out fossil fuels. He hails from a state with large coal and gas reserves. Last week Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America and a Manchin ally, told Newsweek that he could not support Biden’s budget because of the clean energy plan. Manchin also owns stock worth between $1 million and $5 million in a coal brokerage that paid him nearly half a million dollars in dividends last year.
But West Virginia is not immune to the ravages of climate change: Manchin’s own hometown suffers from increasingly frequent and severe flooding linked to climate change.
The Biden administration is also taking executive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as launching a new regulation to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, planet-warming chemicals used as a refrigerant, and opening up vast swaths of the ocean to offshore wind development.
Some of Biden’s moves already have induced other countries to match his efforts. When the U.S. and EU recently jointly announced a pledge to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at least 30 percent by 2030, seven other countries immediately signed on to the pledge.
There is also a broader momentum on climate action that flows from anything the world’s superpower does. “It’s not just symbolic or diplomatic impact, but the practical impact of the world’s largest economy taking action,” said Ogden. “The private sector will see that’s the direction the world is turning.”
However, those programs take time to be fully implemented and risk reversal by future Republican administrations or conservative jurists on the Supreme Court. “The impact and leverage that you have on other countries is much stronger if there’s a law,” said Schmidt.
That’s why environmentalists continue to hold out hope that Manchin will come around to their side. “Hopefully, we’re not done on the clean electricity program,” said Schmidt.
Otherwise, he said, if Democrats want to boost Biden’s ability to lead on climate change, they will have to somehow come up with the equivalent emissions reductions through other means.
There is talk of creating a carbon tax, which would increase the cost of fossil fuels to pay for the social cost of climate pollution. That would be a powerful tool in combating climate change, but it’s a politically challenging approach, as Americans are notoriously disinclined to pay more for electricity or gasoline.
Without that, or the CEPP, Democrats are left with a collection of much smaller-bore actions, such as subsidies for homeowners buying solar panels or retrofitting their houses for improved energy efficiency.
Whether those policies can add up to an equivalent to the clean energy program is an open question. “There are other important climate provisions outside of the CEPP being discussed as part of the reconciliation bill too, so I will be watching carefully to see what becomes of them too in the days ahead,” Ogden said.
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