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Signs of Hope for US Federal Climate Action in 2021

As we enthusiastically bid 2020 farewell, for many reasons 2021 is starting to feel like a year to be hopeful. While the rollout of vaccines signal an impending slow-down to the pandemic, recent activity in DC is offering a similar glimpse to solutions on the horizon for the climate crisis.

Originally published on RMI.org.
By Alisa Petersen, & Mark Silberg

As we enthusiastically bid 2020 farewell, for many reasons 2021 is starting to feel like a year to be hopeful. While the rollout of vaccines signal an impending slow-down to the pandemic, recent activity in DC is offering a similar glimpse to solutions on the horizon for the climate crisis.

Specifically, Congress has passed what may be the most ambitious energy legislation in several years. Two other bills introduced tackle vastly different aspects of climate change and energy transition. We expect these to be indications of an ambitious year for climate action, given ongoing work in Congress and signals from President-Elect Biden’s new cabinet appointments.

What’s Happening in Congress

Passed: Coronavirus and Climate Relief

While much of the media attention on the bill which President Trump recently signed focuses on coronavirus relief measures, the omnibus legislation also included a significant energy package. Notable components include:

  • A two-year extension of the Investment Tax Credit for solar and one year extension of the Production Tax Credit for wind. This means a continued incentive for investment in wind and solar technology, reducing emissions and lowering costs for ratepayers.
  • Establishing a wind technician training grant program and advanced solar manufacturing initiative to enhance domestic manufacturing capabilities, building capacity for well-paid jobs in the clean economy.
  • $14 billion for struggling transit agencies, in desperate needs of life support as the pandemic decimates their revenues.
  • Research and development funding for energy storage, carbon capture and removal, renewable energy, and grid modernization– as much as $35 billion over 10 years. If appropriated, this funding would be catalytic for key areas of innovation to ensure US leadership on climate technologies.
  • Expansion of weatherization programs to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for low-income households, which will reduce energy burdens, incentivize building repair and construction work in every state, and increase occupant health and comfort.

From a climate perspective, one of the most important provisions of this legislation is easily overlooked. The package includes a commitment to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by 85% over the next 15 years. These “super polluter” refrigerants are thousands of times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide. The impact of this effort shows phasing out HFCs may reduce global warming by up to 0.5 degree Celsius, or one third of the 1.5° C limit on global warming. With HFC-alternatives widely available and cost-effective, this legislation signals a major opportunity for innovation and investment in American manufacturing of refrigerators, air conditioners, heat pumps, and other appliances.

Tree lined neighborhood, by Cynthia Shahan, CleanTechnica

Introduced: Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act

The omnibus legislation is not the only Congressional effort “across the aisle” on climate issues. The bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, launched in late 2019, brings together an equal number of Republican and Democrats who “believe Congress should play a central role in developing strategies to tackle the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate.

Co-chairs Mike Braun (R-IN) and Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced the Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act in December, with Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Angus King (I-ME) cosponsoring. The legislation, the first from the Caucus, invests in policies and programs to plant trees and reduce deforestation to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. The legislation follows President Donald Trumps’s executive order establishing the One Trillion Trees Interagency Council.

This legislation has bipartisan support in congress and constituent support with 90 percent of Americans supporting tree planting as a climate change mitigation measure. While we recognize these efforts represent only a small fraction of what needs to be done, the bill nevertheless represents a clear step toward compromise on climate policy.

CleanTechnica-Solar-Panel-Farm-1-scaled watermark

Introduced: American Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act

The American Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act is another encouraging piece of federal energy legislation recently introduced in December. While the Biden-Harris climate platform targets 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 nationwide, and 30+ states have their own form of a renewable energy target, there remains no national clean or renewable energy standard. This bill includes both a national renewable energy standard (55 percent by 2030) and a national energy efficiency savings goal (22 percent savings for electricity and 14 percent for natural gas by 2035).

Renewable energy standards often use renewable energy certificates (RECs) that represents “ownership” of produced renewable electricity. One REC is created for each megawatt-hour of renewable energy generated. Unlike other renewable energy standards, this bill would offer double RECs — in other words, more compensation — for renewable energy projects in environmental justice communities.

Eligible renewables projects would include those on the lands of Native Americans, communities adversely impacted by environmental pollution, or “economically distressed areas affected by high unemployment due to a decline in coal mining or the closure of a coal-fired power plant.” If signed into law, this approach incentivizes new renewable energy projects in, and would direct more funding toward, communities transitioning from fossil fuels and those historically impacted by local pollution.

Smoke from fires exacerbated by climate change, circa 2020. Photo courtesy of Joseph Wachunas.

Congress Continues a Long-View on Climate Issues

These bills increase levels of future-oriented policymaking, accepting the reality of climate change and moving proactively to address it.

In July, we analyzed a report that outlined one of the most comprehensive federal responses to climate change in recent memory, developed by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Committee Chair Kathy Castor of Florida noted last month, “Over the past two years, our Select Committee on the Climate Crisis brought together a historic coalition of scientists, union leaders, faith advocates, farmers, tribal leaders, business leaders and environmental justice champions to deliver a comprehensive, just and actionable plan for Congress to act on climate.”

The Committee will return in the next session of Congress, with Castor at the helm, and we should expect more activity in 2021. As Castor put it, they’ll work “to turn these climate solutions and clean energy investments into a reality.” 

Signs and Signals from the Incoming Administration

As President-Elect Biden begins to name his cabinet appointments, the emphasis these appointments place on climate change and the diversity of the appointments is notable. As climate wonks, it’s easy to read climate and energy into everything, everywhere, all the time. But it is clear that climate and clean energy are core values across agencies and personnel in the next administration.

New Cabinet-Level Positions were Created to Address Climate Change

John Kerry will serve in the newly created post of US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Gina McCarthy will be John Kerry’s stateside counterpart and will serve as the first-ever National Climate Advisor, heading up the newly formed White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. Both nominees are former cabinet members who have strong relationships with policymakers at home and abroad. These newly created cabinet positions demonstrate emphasis and importance placed on climate change like we haven’t seen before.

New Nominees Bring Fresh Perspectives

Jennifer Granholm, nominated for Energy Secretary, played a key role in rescuing the auto industry as Governor of Michigan during the 2008 recession. Her experience leading economic recovery in coordination with the federal government offers scalable lessons for future economic and industrial policy over the coming years, where local and federal coordination is critical. Between her nomination and Pete Buttigieg’s nomination for Department of Transportation, it is clear the electric vehicle industry has a lot to be hopeful for in 2021.

Michael Regan, nominated for Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, got Biden’s attention through his work on environmental justice during his time as secretary of North Carolina’s department of Environmental Quality. This work included creating the first Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board in North Carolina. We expect him to bring this same focus on environmental justice to his new role.

Climate Becomes a Cross-Agency Priority

Biden is pursuing nominees who prioritize climate action in positions that aren’t often tied to the environment. For instance, Brian Deese, nominated as director of the National Economic Council. When introducing him, Biden said “he’ll be the first [NEC director] who is a true expert on climate policy. If we’re going to tackle the climate challenge, we need to make sure solutions are woven into every output of our policy making.”

Another example is Xavier Becerra, nominated as the head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Becerra signaled out the environment as his issue of choice when he served as California attorney general, and now we expect he will use his new position to address climate change as a public health issue.

Unprecedented Diversity in Representation

Cabinet appointments have never more closely resembled the demographics of the U.S. electorate. To date, there is an even gender split in cabinet positions. There are also some historic firsts: Deb Haaland (nominated for Secretary of Interior) would be named the first Indigenous member of a presidential cabinet in US history and Brenda Mallory (nominated for Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality) would be the first African-American to hold her position.

Finally, it is notable that Pakistani-American Ali Zaidi (nominated for the new role of Deputy National Climate Advisor) has been appointed to one of the most important domestic advisory roles in the US government. In efforts to integrate equity and environmental justice into climate policy, representation at senior levels matters.

Conclusion

2030 is a globally-recognized milestone for climate action; to hold temperatures to safe levels we must be more than halfway toward net zero-emissions by midcentury. 2030 is nine years away — 108 months — at best 1,500 days of Congress in session between now and then. Two-and-a-half presidential administrations. We’re hopeful those lawmaking days will be well-spent.


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Written By

Since 1982, RMI (previously Rocky Mountain Institute) has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit http://www.rmi.org for more information.

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