If only Cop was a competition. Nations would engage in a game of climate one-upmanship, boasting about their green policies and handing polluters the wooden spoon. At this point in the match, all eyes would be on the one who’s talking big but really ought to focus. It’s their turn. C’mon USA.
Biden’s Build Back Better bill is America’s best chance to take the lead. After scraping through the House of Representatives last Friday it’s now on its way to the Senate. Together with the $1trn infrastructure bill the president has already signed into law, it could cut 1.8bn tons of emissions by 2030 – equivalent to taking all cars off US roads for two years. But if Biden is expecting an early Christmas present he could be disappointed. Fears over rising inflation and vested interests loom over the next vote. On the other hand, if the bill gets through, the country historically most responsible for climate change could begin making up for decades of inaction and four years of denial under Trump.
What’s in the bill?
The centerpiece of the bill is a $555bn package of green reforms, including:
- $320bn in tax incentives for clean energy generation, flexible grids, electric vehicle chargers, carbon capture and an EV tax credit of $12,500 per vehicle that could at last break the American addiction to undertaxed petrol.
- $39bn to help communities finance renewable energy projects and quit coal.
- $55bn to promote sustainable farming and forestry research programs.
- A Climate Conservation Corps that would hire hundreds of thousands of young Americans to restore nature.
- A fee on methane emissions associated with oil and gas production.
It is on this last measure that Joe Manchin, the senator for fossil fuel-rich West Virginia, is expected to take a stand. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is another who will need appeasing.
If it passes…
Signing the bill into law, plus action on a state level, would put the US on course to achieve the 2030 target it adopted at Paris (see below). The US would rival China’s dominance in green technology. Domestically, Biden could parry attacks from the left by pointing to climate spending on a scale to dwarf the $80bn earmarked by Obama. Internationally, he could build new green energy alliances with climate-conscious allies like Europe and (increasingly) Japan. The US could finally call itself a climate leader.
But if Build Back Better tanks, it will join a depressing list of climate plans that Congress has killed off over three decades: President Bill Clinton’s energy tax in 1994, the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 and the Clean Energy and Security Act in 2010. Failure would give authoritarians another opening to argue only they can battle climate change effectively, even though the record shows they can’t. Young American voters, already disillusioned, would likely give up on Biden and in many cases politics in general. The stakes are high. Perhaps even higher than in Glasgow.
Catch up on our series of ThinkIns at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow
Who should pay to save the rainforest?
How far can we go with the technology we already have?
Talk is cheap. What should CEOs actually do about the climate crisis?
Too slow, too many cars – can we change the electrification roadmap?
How do we kick start the renovation revolution?
science and tech
Carbon to keep
Here’s an idea: identify areas of the earth’s landmass that have to be preserved for their natural carbon stores as if they were endangered species. A team of researchers at Conservation International has done just that in a paper for Nature Sustainability that includes a map with user-friendly highlights. Boxes have been drawn round patches of high-carbon biomass and / or peatland in the western Amazon, the Congo basin, northwestern North America and the island of Borneo. The thinking is that these areas a) can be managed but b) are vulnerable and c) would be impossible to restore within a useful timeframe if the carbon in them were lost. Hence “irrecoverable carbon”, the latest climate catchphrase for your fridge door. It’s slightly misleading because the carbon hasn’t actually been lost to the atmosphere yet – it just would be irrecoverable if it was. The four areas above are fairly predictable. Less predictable are vast natural carbon stores in eastern Canada and western Siberia. They’re unboxed on the map because being under permafrost they’re deemed unmanageable. And when the permafrost melts? Still presumably unmanageable – just on the wrong side of the ledger.
activism and engagement
Sharmed I’m sure
Will the police state run by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Egypt allow XR or anyone else wanted to protest about the slow pace of climate action anywhere near the next Cop in Sharm el-Sheikh? Probably not. “There’s a lot to be concerned about,” Timothy Kaldas of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy told the Observer. Assuming street protest outside blue zones make any difference to what’s going on inside them, that is. Boris Johnson and John Kerry certainly behaved as if it did, frequently urging Greta and her followers to stay angry. And there’s solid evidence that no systemic change happens without sharp-edged direct action pushing for it. The trouble is in today’s Egypt Sisi’s security people have all the sharp edges and his consular officials can simply deny entry to anyone they don’t like the look of. Cue distributed protests instead – outside the world’s Egyptian embassies.
Bulb gets crunched
Britain’s energy crisis has claimed another scalp in the form of Bulb energy, the country’s seventh largest supplier. The company will now be run by Ofgem until new suppliers are found for Bulb’s 1.7 million customers. “Today’s news has been a long time coming,” said Keith Anderson, chief executive of rival ScottishPower. Among the various reasons given for Bulb’s demise is its cash-burning, low-tariff business model – risky in a market as volatile as energy. But there’s another, simpler, reason. Energy prices have risen from 50p to £4 per therm in the space of a year, and the price cap that protects customers from excessive bills has made it increasingly difficult for suppliers to bear the cost. The inevitably of Bulb’s collapse proves what critics of the energy price cap said all along – it was never going to work. The best way to limit prices for consumers is to install more renewables. With enough capacity, the marginal price of extra energy is zero.
To plant, or be planted? These days, that is the question. But for green fintech startup Aspiration, it prompted a rather awkward response. An investigation by ProPublica found that the company, which has drawn investment from the likes of Drake and Leonardo DiCaprio, was not being wholly accurate about its claim to have planted over 35 million trees. Funded, sure. But in terms of saplings in the ground and sucking in carbon the company conceded the actual number was closer to 12 million. Aspiration, of course, is not the only company whose tree marketing has rung hollow, but it does serve to highlight the difference between the 20 to 50-year proposition of effective tree planting and the shorter term aim of keeping investors interested in the next funding round.
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Additional reporting by Giles Whittell
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