America and climate change – How America can rid itself of both carbon and blackouts | Leaders
February 20, 2021
T.EXAS prides itself on being different. Still, it is in the grip of a winter storm that is typical of the Snowmageddon-size problems that the energy in America is facing. While no one can be sure whether this particular frost is a sign of climate change, the incidence of extreme weather conditions is increasing across the country. The Texan infrastructure has collapsed. The problem isn’t, as some argue, that Texas has too much renewable energy. Gas-fired plants and a nuclear reactor as well as wind turbines were hit. Worse still, Texas was running out of capacity and its poorly connected grid couldn’t import power from elsewhere (see article). Texas shows that America needs both a cleaner network and a more reliable network.
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Plans to overhaul American energy will be presented to Congress in the next few months. President Joe Biden said he wanted fossil fuel emissions from power generation to end by 2035 and the economy to be carbon neutral by 2050. America is not only the world’s second largest emitter, but also a source of climate policy, technology, and possibly leadership. What is happening in Washington will set the course in America for the next decade – and possibly beyond.
Time is running out. Neither Mr Biden nor his successors are given a second chance to reformulate policy on such a scale. Global emissions from fossil fuels and cement production were 16% higher in 2019 than in 2009. It will be even more difficult to contain climate change below 2 ° C above pre-industrial levels, the global threshold above which America’s 2050 target is . To be climate neutral, the world will need to cut emissions by 7.6% per year for a decade, a steeper decline than in 2020 when covid-19 cut demand for oil and coal. For America, delaying action until 2030 would almost double the cost of reaching net zero, or more likely, it would exceed its targets.
Still, there is reason for hope. Although the Republican Party is against almost all measures, voters are increasingly alarmed by climate change. Two-thirds of them believe the federal government is doing too little about it, and that proportion includes many younger Republicans. Although the lobby for fossil fuels is still powerful, many Republican corporate donors want more action – also because the asset managers are calling on companies to align their strategies with the net-zero world planned by Mr Biden.
Most encouragingly, the cost of wind and solar energy has decreased by 70% and 90%, respectively, over the past decade. This, along with cheap gas, has already given America an impressive decarbonization despite Donald Trump’s pulling back on fossil fuel regulations. Price wasn’t the only factor; More than half of the states have a clean energy mandate, an instrument that Mr Biden wants to introduce at the national level.
This includes a legal framework that favors the development of renewable energies and grid connections in order to connect them. It’s going to take a lot of additional investment – about $ 2.5 trillion over the next decade, Princeton researchers say (see brief). In a new book, Bill Gates, a billionaire philanthropist, argues that it requires exploring a wide variety of areas such as energy storage, advanced nuclear reactors to complement renewable energies, and technologies for making clean concretes and other hard-to-decarbonise activities (see article). Without this, even if a clean power grid drives electric cars and light trucks, only about half of the emissions will be displaced.
America is good at innovation, but new ideas need to be implemented on a large scale, not in the laboratory. One instrument is a price of carbon that, if high enough and if investors believe it will last, signals what improvements are needed and where. For all the attractions, carbon pricing failed in Congress in 2009. While many economists and opinion-makers advocate it, Republican politicians don’t. And even if there were a carbon price, it would take public-private collaboration for America to act as quickly as Mr Biden is suggesting.
For all of these reasons, an ambitious climate-focused infrastructure bill seems like Mr Biden’s best chance of getting a new climate policy through the Senate. Unfortunately, such a plan will be lucky enough to garner Republican votes. If, however, it is unlikely to rally the 60 needed to fend off a filibuster in the Senate, a plan could be exempted from some measures, including a clean energy standard, and passed by a simple majority through the parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation . The bill must still be of a scope and ambition to match America’s challenge.
Failure to act would involve great risks. First of all, this would make America less competitive in the new clean energy economy. China is the dominant manufacturer of solar panels and batteries. It has also invested in foreign mines to secure the minerals it needs. Europe has its own “Green Deal” to boost its clean energy industry. There are plans to tax imports from countries that do not commit to reducing their emissions.
America would also be deprived of global influence on the climate. It has direct control over only about 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If it wants to take advantage of a more stable climate – and thus a more stable world economy, a more stable geopolitics and much avoided suffering – it must also influence the other 90%. Mr. Biden has appointed John Kerry, a former Secretary of State, to take this effort forward (see Lexington). America will rejoin the Paris Agreement on February 19, fully participating in the UN conference that will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, when countries can make new and more ambitious commitments to cut emissions. If America sets goals and shows it supports them with domestic politics, it will gain influence. China’s two major development banks have spent $ 51 billion on foreign coal-fired power plants since 2008. America should be part of a push against such subsidies.
Unfortunately, America brings little credibility to climate action. Mr Trump took pleasure in undermining it, but his country’s poor record precedes it. George W. Bush refused to implement the Kyoto Protocol. Congress has not considered serious climate legislation since 2009. Today it has to be different. There will never be a better chance for Mr. Biden to show real ambition. If the Texas blackouts were a guide, it wouldn’t just be the world that would thank him, Americans would be too. ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print version under the heading “America’s Better Future.”