‘Wicked hard’: Biden and Congress fight to cut US emissions

President Biden took office saying he would respond to the “cry for survival [that] comes from the planet itself.

After uttering that line during his inauguration, Biden started a storm of climate-focused executive orders. He joined the Paris climate agreement with the aim of halving US emissions by 2030. And he has integrated climate teams in federal agencies, promising to mobilize the whole government against a threat that ‘he described as “existential”.

But Biden – and Congress – still struggle to turn the trajectory of American climate pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions increased in Biden’s first year in the White House.

Much of that increase is linked to the reopening of the US economy last year after the widespread shutdowns of 2020. And emissions in 2021 were lower than they were in 2019. But experts warn that pollution America’s climate seems to be rebounding faster than the economy.

And with most of Biden’s agenda stuck in Congress, the president is ending his first year the way he started it: crafting many narrower climate policies – and hoping most of them stick around. .

The administration finalized the regulations on vehicle pollution, refrigerants and the energy efficiency of devices. The EPA has proposed rules to limit methane from the oil and gas sector. And the Home Office has stepped up large-scale clean energy projects, especially offshore wind.

Biden has signed bipartisan infrastructure legislation that will allocate billions of dollars to important elements of the energy transition, such as transmission lines and electric vehicle charging stations. And internationally, the president has spearheaded a global commitment on methane to reduce emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas by 30% by 2030.

The administration has also suffered setbacks on some policies, such as restricting the new lease of oil on public lands.

These actions, however, are overshadowed by the potential impact of the $ 550 billion “Build Back Better” legislation for clean energy, research and other climate policies. This bill is stuck in legislative limbo as Biden tries to win the support of Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.).

All of this made it somewhat premature to declare Biden’s first year of climate action a success or failure.

If Biden passes his climate legislation in the coming months, experts said, his first year of laborious congressional negotiations and legislative maneuvering will look much better in hindsight.

Otherwise, Biden’s 2030 climate target is likely out of reach, and the outlook for his 2050 economy-wide decarbonization target is starting to worsen as well. The White House could also face questioning as to whether Congressional negotiations prevented more aggressive unilateral action.

“The administration accomplished a lot in its first year. I also think it has fallen short of its ambitions, ”said Robbie Orvis, senior director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation.

He highlighted the new initiatives of the energy and transport departments to accelerate the development of clean energy and charging stations.

“The administration knows that Build Back Better is transformative. But they also know that more needs to be done. And I think that’s why you see [them announce] all these other non-legislative things, ”Orvis said.

Biden did more to cut emissions in his first year than former President Obama, he added. But the shrinking carbon budget around the world means it’s not enough to be better than your predecessors.

In this sense, climate change is not unique. Biden took office promising to face what he called “four converging crises”: Covid-19, racial injustice, the economy and rising temperatures. Each of these problems remains stubbornly persistent.

The Omicron variant sent Covid-19 records to new records. Soaring inflation has eclipsed strong job growth. A new cultural war has broken out over the way race issues are taught in schools.

And last year, greenhouse gas emissions rose 6.2% from 2020, according to a Analysis of the Rhodium group. That leaves emissions below pre-pandemic levels in 2019. But the pollution rate – pushed up by transportation and coal-fired electricity – has rebounded faster than the economy’s estimated growth of 5.7% .

“It turns out that climate change is very harsh and cannot be done in a year,” said John Larsen, partner at Rhodium Group, who leads the company’s climate work.

Compared to Obama, he added, Biden has moved faster and on more fronts.

Obama’s first year contributed roughly $ 90 billion to tackle climate change in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as the EPA finalizing its conclusion on endangering greenhouse gases , the scientific basis for regulating heat-trapping gas emissions.

But carbon cap-and-trade legislation failed Congress during Obama’s first term, and there has been little movement on climate regulations except for a voluntary deal with automakers to improve fuel economy (Daily E&E, June 27, 2014).

“So if you compare [Biden’s first year] against Obama’s first year, it’s like – dang, pretty good, ”Larsen said.

Biden might have been able to move forward more quickly on some draft rules, like restricting emissions from power plants, he added. But it could have risked upsetting congressional negotiations at a time when Biden needs fossil-fuel-aligned Democrats like Manchin.

A lot of Biden’s climate deficits stem from those kinds of structural issues, Larsen said, so it’s not like much would change if another Democrat were president, like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a voice of foreground on the climate. Congress would remain a serious obstacle.

“Sure, [Biden] is the president. But many of the great things a president could do require other parts of government to embrace it, ”Larsen said.

Under the radar, however, Biden has implemented more subtle changes that could pay off over time.

Perhaps most important are the climate officials now embedded in agencies and departments that historically have ignored climate change.

Under Obama, climate work was still mostly confined to the EPA and the Energy, Home and State departments. Today, even bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission are considering climate-related rules.

“It’s different,” Larsen said. “There are teams in every department looking for a way to help solve the problem. And I don’t think we’re done seeing what these teams can do.

Indeed, observers expect to see a lot more climate regulations from the Biden administration going forward, which could make 2021 a calm year by comparison. Some of these rules, like those for power plants, are eagerly awaited.

Nationally, some of the rule-making has been slower than we had hoped, said Michael Gerrard, faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

But this is not an entirely negative development, he added. The Trump administration has rushed on climate regulations – only to see many of them overturned in court.

“[Biden officials] know that anything they do will immediately be challenged in court by industry and anti-climate regulatory states. So it’s very important to point out all the i’s and cross all the t’s, ”said Gerrard. “This is something the Trump administration did not do, and so many of their actions have been overturned by the courts. So the Biden administration is wisely trying to prevent this. “

At this point, Larsen said, Biden has erased the regulatory legacy of former President Trump enough that his administration can focus on his own agenda.

“This flashback piece is pretty well done. And doing all of that in the first year is pretty remarkable, ”he said.

The prospect of passing climate legislation and federal agencies shifting to more substantial regulation means that “2022 could actually be the most important year from a long-term climate perspective,” Larsen added. .