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Biden doesn't need Congress to step up the fight against climate change

Trump and Biden debate their climate policies
Trump and Biden debate their climate and environmental policies 11:47

President-elect Joe Biden can expect to face fierce political opposition as he seeks to implement what amounts to the country's boldest-ever plan for combating climate change. Given those obstacles, can he actually get anything done?

Actually, yes. A Biden administration can help the economy go green without ever involving Congress. Biden's toolkit as head of state includes executive orders, rule-making at federal agencies, authority over trade and foreign policy, and the U.S. government's massive purchasing power. 

The first step: Unwinding the Trump administration's policies, which rolled back numerous environmental protections and supported fossil-fuel production. Because carbon emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming, experts say the U.S. must make much steeper cuts in greenhouse gases now in order to have any chance of staving off runaway climate change.

A "green" stimulus

Republicans have signaled openness to a fourth round of federal stimulus spending to support the economy. Such a bill, which is also backed by Democrats, may represent Mr. Biden's best shot of securing funding for his climate priorities early in his term.

Clean-energy groups are pushing for more government investment in renewable energy, which, like many parts of the economy, shed workers earlier this year when the coronavirus closed down large parts of the economy. Solar, wind and energy-efficiency companies already employ more people than fossil-fuel industries and are an economic driver in rural areas, advocates note. That's fostered Republican support in the past and made red states such as Texas and Iowa leaders in wind energy.

"The clean-energy sector has invested billions and billions of dollars and created hundreds of thousands of jobs in red states," said Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). 

A Nation In Need: A Stimulus Checklist 38:29

Wetstone also noted that clean energy was a major growth area after the 2008 recession, rebounding faster than many other sectors. "We think we can drive the recovery again. We hope that Congress would like to see that happen," Westone said.

Incentives for clean-energy production, as well as carbon sequestration, are also favored by conservative climate activists. 

"Building a post-COVID economy is going to be a major focus for both parties. We can knock out two birds with one stone by looking at natural solutions to climate change, nuclear power and carbon capture" in a stimulus bill, said Danielle Butcher, chief operating officer at the American Conservation Coalition, a group that supports conservative action on environmental policy.

Modernizing the grid

Updating America's ailing electrical grid is another policy favored by both parties. If a grid modernization plan were included in a stimulus package, it would effectively strengthen renewable power by making it more broadly accessible. As it stands, the grid today has many bottlenecks that prevent solar or wind energy generated in one area from being used elsewhere.

"We have areas of grid that don't connect with one another at all," said ACORE's Wetstone. "It's extremely inefficient for these areas to try to produce enough power for that area and only that area. They're overproducing, but they can't share power."

Who needs Congress?

One lesson Mr. Biden has surely taken from the Trump presidency is how much a president can accomplish without ever dealing with Congress. In that way, the Trump administration has enabled higher emissions of methane — a major carbon pollutant; weakened vehicle emissions limits; challenged California's attempts to cut emissions; rolled back water protections; moved to curtail investment in clean energy and other "socially responsible" areas; and opened up protected federal lands to oil and gas drilling.

Mr. Biden could reverse most of those actions through executive order or by federal rule-making. He could also implement tariffs on fossil-fuel imports and cut tariffs on clean-energy components, which would make solar energy cheaper to produce. 

WoodMackenzie analyst Simon Flowers wrote that Mr. Biden is likely to jump-start offshore wind developments by streamlining the permitting process, reversing a slowdown the industry saw under Mr. Trump. Under Mr. Biden, the federal government is likely to purchase more clean energy and electric vehicles, Flowers wrote.

"The number of things this president can do that are not on the margins, but monumental, with the power he has, are extraordinary," said Mindy Lubber, president and CEO of Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit. In addition to directly purchasing clean energy, the government could require federal contractors to consider climate change and use climate-friendly technology throughout their supply chains, Lubber noted.  

"If the federal government says to every agency, 'We want all of your suppliers to be considering climate change and pollution and equity,' by 2030 there'll be all-electric vehicles," she said.

Climate change is a national security issue, experts warn 06:41

Making climate goals central to operations

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — whose philanthropic endeavors now include environmental protection— and a number of Obama-era officials are encouraging the Biden administration to take just such an approach. The Climate 21 Project, released this week, details ways to put climate goals at the center of the government's operations, rather than consigning them to one or two agencies. The report's more than 300 recommendations run the gamut from re-hiring science experts who have left the government under the current administration to using rural development grants to pay farmers and foresters for sequestering carbon.

The federal government is already moving in that direction, albeit slowly. The Federal Reserve this week cited climate change as a systemic risk to the financial system and to assets such as coastal real estate. Private institutions such as banks and insurance companies have also moved to "price in" climate risk.

If this approach takes hold across the government, it would nearly eliminate the need for explicit climate policies, since it would make investments linked to pollution prohibitively expensive.

Carbon pricing — sort of

To be sure, legislation putting a price on carbon emissions, one of the most straightforward ways to decarbonize the economy, is unlikely to pass if the GOP retains control of the Senate. Still, federal agencies could consider a price on emissions. And the clean-energy industry is lobbying for a one-year extension of the tax credit for clean-power projects, which it says would allow renewables to compete on a level playing field against heavily subsidized fossil fuels.

Under President Donald Trump, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has made it harder for renewables to compete by setting a price floor for energy sold in one of the nation's electricity marketplaces. Under the current rule, even if a producer could make wind or solar energy very cheaply, they would still have to sell it at a higher price.

"It's completely anticompetitive," ACORE's Wetstone said.

Reversing that rule could go a long way in moving U.S. electricity to an all-renewable grid. So could allowing states to put a price on carbon — something the FERC signaled it was open to in a recent statement.

Even a small nudge in this direction could make a difference because renewable electricity is already staggeringly cheap. The investment bank Lazard found last month that utility-scale wind and solar were the cheapest energy sources available, even without federal subsidies. In some cases, building new wind and solar plants was cheaper than operating existing natural gas or nuclear plants.

That low price is one reason renewable energy has surged this year, despite a pandemic, global economic slowdown and hostile U.S. administration. Installations of wind, energy and hydropower are poised to reach new highs, predicts the International Energy Agency. So will rooftop solar, according to BloombergNEF.

Renewable energy industry booming despite struggling economy 05:21

Clean-energy advocates hope that public pressure, along with growing recognition in the private sector that climate change poses a potentially calamitous economic threat, will spur Mr. Biden and Congress into action.

"The tide has changed, the wind is at our back," said Ceres' Mindy Lubber, adding, "which is not to say we're moving at a fast-enough pace."

"The investors we work with are ready to step up and support a price on carbon. Five hundred of our members have said they won't invest in coal because it's a bad investment. We have six or seven major banks that have supported us in going back into [the Paris climate agreement.] It's a different world. We can't roll the clock back; people want to move forward."

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