President Joe Biden arrives in the United States this week after a foreign tour with a recurring theme: combating climate change.
But he is back in Washington, where his party is increasingly concerned that his administration’s climate agenda will fail at home.
Bipartisan talks about Biden’s infrastructure proposals — which would spend billions on rickety roads, bridges and tunnels, as well as record sums on clean energy — are Weak. As moderate Republicans and Democrats try to scale back the package, progressives warn that they will withhold support if climate terms are stripped.
“If there’s no climate, there’s no deal,” said Jeff Merkley, the Democratic senator from Oregon this week. “When a ship is sailing on the infrastructure, the power infrastructure cannot be left on the docks.”
Democratic Party leaders are now exploring another path to enact Biden’s climate plan. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday met with his budget committee members to find ways to fund greener electricity, zero-carbon cars, manufacturing and agriculture that keep many climate goals intact.
While the strategy is likely to be more viable, it could weaken Biden’s climate policies. The legislation will be put into the Senate’s budget adjustment process — a special measure that enables Democrats to use their slim majority but limits the scope of what can be passed.
Biden pledged to the United States to reduce emissions at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. It aims to have carbon-neutral electricity by 2035 – a goal that does not mean that nothing will be generated by burning coal or natural gas unless their emissions are captured.
These noble climate policies were a focus of Biden’s diplomacy on his first international trip. He told G7 leaders in Cornwall that global warming is the “existential problem facing humanity,” and helped launch a $2 billion fund for states to shift away from coal.
However, Washington’s Democrats seem unlikely to pass ambitious climate legislation with Republican support given the 50-50 party split in the Senate and rules that require at least 60 votes to move the most important bills.
“I think there is cause for concern,” said Dan Lachoff, director of the World Resources Institute in the US, referring to the fate of climate proposals in Congress.
“It has always been a challenge, to get investments of the scale needed, to get around climate change,” he added. “Having very large investments in infrastructure and clean energy technologies is critical to reaching US emissions targets.”
Schumer’s proposed reconciliation process requires a simple majority vote, but the rules limit it to tax and spending actions. Far-reaching initiatives to reduce annual carbon emissions of 6.5 billion tons in the United States will be at risk.
Using reconciliation would make it difficult to establish a “clean electricity standard,” a key part of Biden’s plans to tackle emissions. The standard would set stricter emissions targets for electric utilities, which are the source of a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“The clean electricity standard is a much harder judgment by reconciliation, and the reason is very simple: It’s a standard,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic advisor at the Institute for Progressive Policy. “Imposing the square linkage of the clean electricity standard in the opening round of the reconciliation process will be very difficult.”
One solution under discussion among Democrats is to push incentives for clean electricity, achieving some goals of the electricity standard while aligning with the Reconciliation Guidelines.
“This will involve the federal government becoming a partner in the transition, helping facilities that are making progress with the speed and scale needed for financial investments,” said Leah Stokes, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Other parts of Biden’s climate agenda — including expanding tax credits for wind, solar, and energy storage and creating a credit for power transmission lines — will be more visible under the compromise process. Policies that are not dependent on legislation, such as vehicle emissions rules, could be imposed directly by the Biden administration, and that is expected soon.
Adding to the urgency of the legislative push is the 2022 midterm elections, when Democrats risk losing control of the Senate or the House of Representatives.
said Rachel Kate, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Republicans argued that infrastructure proposals should focus more on roads, bridges and construction projects and objected to provisions that would subsidize electric cars and subsidize non-fossil energy.
Meanwhile, not all Democratic senators are aligned. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a coal-producing state, is likely to have a decisive influence on the shape of any climate proposals, as his vote will be needed to pass bipartisan or reconciliation bills.
Energy experts acknowledge that achieving carbon-neutral electricity by 2035 will be daunting even if the clean electricity standard is passed, due to the obsolescence of the US power grid.
Patrick Loko, an analyst at IHS Markit, expects energy demand to increase rapidly over the next decade as more vehicles and home heating systems run on electricity. “When you add renewable energy and get rid of fossil fuels, there is growth in demand as well, which makes it more difficult,” he said.
Democrats say Biden needs to win the climate for political reasons as much as environmental ones. “The Democrats cannot risk the climate and economic policy failure of Biden,” Bledsoe said.