The January 20th inauguration was an historic event. Not only did it represent the end of Donald Trump’s tenure as Climate-Change-Denier-In-Chief, it represented a return to fact based governance, with civility and respect for the role of government as a force for good in the lives of its citizens. Not to mention, the inauguration presented us with the first woman, first African American and first Asian to serve in the role of second in line to the Presidency, a huge milestone in its own right, but especially meaningful in the age of Black Lives Matter and the rise of an overt white supremacy movement.
Perhaps most germane for those of us that believe we are a crucial juncture in the fight against climate change, January 20th marks the beginning of a period of time when Democrats narrowly control both houses of Congress and the White House. If recent history is any guide, this will be a brief period of narrow one-party control. The Democratic majority in the House is not overwhelming, and the balance in the Senate 50/50 with Vice President Harris acting as the tie breaker. Hardly a strong position to enact sweeping partisan legislation. There is a narrow window for Congress to accomplish anything meaningful on climate, and what they do accomplish will require bipartisan cooperation.
So what meaningful climate legislation can be enacted on a bipartisan basis? One form of bipartisan action would be to put a price on carbon. Done well, carbon pricing legislation can be very effective at significantly reducing carbon emissions and at the same time can be progressive. The devil is in the details. Support for such a policy should only be given if the price gets to a meaningful level (around $100+/ton of CO2e) in 10 years and makes provisions for households on the lower end of the income scale that cannot afford higher living expenses. This last point is critical, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it is necessary for the policy’s durability. Just ask President Macron of France how well his gas tax worked (spoiler alert, it sparked the Yellow Vest movement which sparked protests that degenerated into rioting). In the last congress, ten bills were introduced that would put a price on carbon. Of those, four were introduced with bipartisan support. These bills come in several different flavors, but they are all carbon tax/fee based as opposed to cap and trade. Cap and trade has fallen out of vogue, mostly due to poor implementation in the past that has resulted in carbon credits priced too low to meaningfully control carbon emissions. For an excellent comparison of these bills go the Carbon Pricing Bill Tracker created by Resources For the Future (RFF). Economic models show that these carbon pricing mechanisms would reduce carbon emissions by 50% in 10 years and would not significantly burden the economy and some suggest it could actually increase GDP and the number of jobs. One sign that carbon pricing stands a better chance now than it ever has in the past, is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just came out in support of carbon pricing.
Another area of potential bipartisan support is to increase funding for research and development (R&D) into clean energy technology. We already saw bipartisan support for policies of this sort with the omnibus spending bill passed in November 2020. We have the technology now to get us perhaps to 80-90% decarbonization, but in order to have solutions for that last 10-20% by mid-century, we will need to start the R&D on those solutions now. R&D in clean energy in the U.S. has been flat as a percentage of GDP for decades. Many have suggested that a doubling or even tripling of that number would be appropriate given the scope of the problem. We still need solutions to decarbonize industry and some sectors of transportation such as shipping and aviation. There is also widespread agreement that we will need to develop technologies that allow us to capture and sequester carbon in the air so that we can actually reverse carbon emissions given the likelihood that we will overshoot our carbon emissions budget.
Finally, one or more stimulus bills will be required to stave off the economic disaster caused by the pandemic. This is where a more modest version of the $2T clean energy transition funding Biden has proposed can be accomplished. There is an opportunity here to expand tax credits for clean energy, increase tax rebates for EV buyers, significantly increase the EV charging network and build out the transmission grid. Taken together, these measures will not result in a program that meets the challenge of climate change, but would be a meaningful step in the right direction.
We at Rebuild Climate strongly encourage you to make your voice heard and help us build the political will to make these policies a reality. These measures taken together won’t get us over the finish line, but could very well keep us on track long enough to build the political will for more aggressive measures.