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Still pending ahead of Glasgow, budget deal would be huge climate achievement

October 31, 2021, 11:06 am
Coal mining in Wyoming (Wiki commons).
Coal mining in Wyoming (Wiki commons).

President Joe Biden will arrive at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, without new federal programs in hand to fight climate change, after Democrats in Congress failed to reach an agreement to pass his revised $1.75 trillion spending plan.

But environmental advocates say they haven’t given up and praised the new proposal for not trimming as much in climate spending as it could have. They said they viewed the framework as a positive step, even if it didn’t meet the administration’s goal of passage before the overseas trip.

Biden had sought an agreement by the time the conference started to bolster a pledge to the international community that the United States wanted to be part of a worldwide climate effort. More than 100 world leaders are expected in Glasgow, with Biden arriving Monday.

The White House released a $1.75 trillion framework Thursday that included $555 billion devoted to addressing climate change, including clean energy tax credits and other provisions, but lawmakers were still negotiating its details as Congress adjourned for the weekend. A vote could come as soon as next week, but that would be after Biden’s participation in the pivotal U.N. meeting.

“It’s not ideal that we haven’t secured this before the Glasgow conference,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists. “But I think it is really coming into focus quickly.”

U.S. leadership is essential to the global issue of climate change because the U.S. has historically been the greatest emitter of climate-changing greenhouse gases, and because as a rich country it has the resources to do something about it, Cleetus said.

The president’s spending framework, which the administration calls the Build Back Better plan, is crucial to restoring U.S. leadership on climate, said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, a public interest law firm that advocates for the West.

“If President Biden’s Build Back Better plan is not passed by Congress, the U.S. will take yet another hit on the international stage,” he wrote in a Tuesday email, adding that former President Donald Trump’s administration “was an unmitigated disaster” for U.S. credibility on climate.

Manchin pressure

The Biden proposal released Thursday is a slimmed-down version of a $3.5 trillion package House Democrats pieced together.

Under pressure from coal-friendly U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the White House dropped the Clean Energy Performance Program that would have paid utility companies to meet renewable energy targets and penalize those that didn’t. Some climate experts considered the program the most aggressive climate measure in that bill.

Still, the new framework would have a major climate impact, said Robbie Orvis, the senior director of energy policy design at the nonprofit think tank Energy Innovation that models climate policy. 

The $150 billion earmarked for the CEPP in the earlier proposal was mostly redistributed to other climate programs and policies — including clean energy tax credits, carbon capture tax credits and a fee on methane — and retains most of its impact.

To meet goals set in the 2016 Paris Agreement, the U.S. must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 gigatons. Energy Innovation’s model of the earlier bill showed a reduction of 1.3-1.5 gigatons. 

The group is still working on modeling the updated framework, but Orvis said the range would likely be similar. 

“We’re looking at the largest, by far, achievement on climate by the U.S. Congress in history,” he said.

But that achievement isn’t final until Congress actually approves it. A separate bill moving through Congress allocating $1.2 trillion for physical infrastructure falls short in fighting climate change in the views of critics.

In terms of Biden’s record, though, the new framework shows that climate remains a priority.

“That we went from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion and the climate provisions only got a $50 billion haircut is pretty indicative of both his commitment and where Democrats in Congress are,” Orvis said. “Yes, some things have been cut, but by and large emissions cuts are still in there.”

Paris Agreement

Biden has sent other signals he’s prioritizing climate change. 

He rejoined the Paris Agreement, a 2016 international commitment to reducing emissions that the U.S. signed onto under President Barack Obama but left under Trump.

Biden has also set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and to double the U.S. commitment to financing climate programs in developing countries.

Still, as the back-and-forth on the Paris Agreement shows, executive action can be fleeting.  

Climate groups praised the White House framework and other parts of Biden’s climate record, but the impasse in Congress undercut the message he’d sought to project to the world about the direction of U.S. climate policy.

“Legislation is critical,” said Cleetus. “Congress uniquely has the power to build durable policy change.”

Biden seemed to endorse that view, and pushed for Congress to approve the spending plan before he left for his trip to Europe.

“It would be very, very positive to get it done before the trip,” he told reporters Monday.

After it became clear the spending plan and the physical infrastructure bill would not pass before the U.N. conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration expected both to become law.

“We are proud of the hard work we’ve done with Members of Congress over these last months,” she said in a late Thursday statement.  “We’re confident that soon we’ll pass both the Build Back Better Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal.”

The annual U.N. Climate Conference provides a venue for global leaders to collaborate on international climate goals. The Paris Climate Accord, which set a worldwide goal of less than 2 degree Celsius rise and to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, was agreed to at the 2016 meeting.

This year’s conference, hosted by the United Kingdom with Italy, will run from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12. Biden is expected to participate Monday and Tuesday in the World Leaders Summit before returning to the U.S. 

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry also will attend.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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