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As spending bill stalls, Biden climate goals remain elusive

WASHINGTON (AP) – United States (US) President Joe Biden faces a steep path to achieve his ambitious goal of slashing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, amid legislative gridlock that has stalled a USD2 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives.

Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which contains USD550 billion in spending and tax credits aimed at promoting clean energy, was sidetracked by Democratic Sen Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who said just before Christmas that he could not support the legislation as written.

Democrats insist they are moving forward on the sweeping package, which also would bolster family services, health care and other programmes. Manchin signalled in recent days that climate-related provisions were unlikely to be a deal-breaker, but the bill has taken a back seat to voting rights legislation and other Democratic priorities.

Even without the legislation, Biden can pursue his climate agenda through rules and regulations. But those can be undone by subsequent presidents, as demonstrated by Biden reversing Trump administration rules that rolled back protections put into place under Barack Obama.

Experts cite Biden’s executive authority to regulate tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks, as well as restrict emissions from power plants and other industrial sources, and the federal government’s vast power to approve renewable energy projects on federal lands and waters.

Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new tailpipe rules for cars and trucks the day after Manchin’s bombshell announcement on December 19. The next day, the Interior Department announced approval of two large-scale solar projects in California and moved to open up public lands in other Western states to solar development as part of the administration’s efforts to counter climate change by shifting from fossil fuels.

US President Joe Biden speaks in Louisville, Colorado. PHOTO: AFP

The administration also has access to tens of billions of dollars under the bipartisan infrastructure law approved in November, including USD7.5 billion to create a national network of electric vehicle chargers; USD5 billion to deliver thousands of electric school buses nationwide; and USD65 billion to upgrade the power grid to reduce outages and facilitate expansion of renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

“I think the US has a lot of tools and a lot of options to make gains on climate in the next decade,’’ said John Larsen, an energy systems expert and partner at the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm.

“Build Back Better is helpful” to meet Biden’s goals, “but if you don’t have Build Back Better, that doesn’t mean nothing happens,’’ Larsen said. “It just makes the task ahead a bit more challenging.’’

Larsen is co-author of a Rhodium Group study last fall that found that passage of the Build Back Better package, along with the bipartisan infrastructure law and regulations by key federal agencies and states, could cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent to 51 per cent below 2005 levels in 2030.

The Biden bill offers incentives for electric car purchases, development of technology to capture and store carbon emissions, and construction of wind and solar farms, among other provisions.

Global leaders made progress at a November climate summit in Scotland, “but there needs to be much more” action taken, said Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann. “And for the US to be able to do its part, we need the climate provisions of Build Back Better to pass Congress as soon as possible.?

Energy Systems Engineer at Princeton University Jesse Jenkins who has led an effort to model the Build Back Better bill’s effect on US emissions, said there is “a yawning gap” between where US emissions are today “and where we need to be to hit President Biden’s climate targets.”

Such a gap “is unlikely to be bridged by executive action or state policy alone,’’ Jenkins said in an email. The Princeton model estimates that the US will fall 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent short of Biden’s 2030 climate commitment without the Build Back Better law.

Carbon dioxide equivalent is a standard measurement for the range of so-called greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, that are generated from the burning of coal and petroleum and from other industrial uses and agriculture, and trap heat in the atmosphere.

Still, Jenkins remains optimistic about US climate action.

“I do not accept the premise that the Build Back Better package is dead,’’ he wrote, adding that he thinks “there is still a very good chance that Congress passes the climate provisions and some combination of social policies’’ being pushed by Democrats.

“The consequences of failure are untenable, and the climate clock only moves in one direction,’’ Jenkins said.

Sen Tina Smith said she’s confident Biden and his administration will make good use of their current regulatory authority, as well as billions of dollars in new spending in the bipartisan infrastructure law. But on their own, those tools are not enough to meet Biden’s climate goals, she said.

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