Biden’s climate agenda might actually make some progress

The new spending proposal earmarks $555 billion for climate initiatives. But it’s hard not to mourn what could have been.

US President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's social spending plans, from the East Room o...
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On Thursday morning, President Biden and Senate Democrats appeared together to announce that they successfully negotiated with themselves, agreeing to cut most meaningful social programs from a proposed $3.5 trillion bill that will now spend just $1.75 trillion despite not requiring a single Republican vote. It largely sucks. But if there is a glimmer of hope to be found, it is in a place that usually only produces dread: climate change. If the new package does pass (though we’ll see about that), it will set aside $555 billion to be spent on clean energy, climate resilience, and achieving a major reduction in the country’s emissions.

Let’s start with the good news: The massive chunk of spending on climate change amounts to what the White House calls the “largest effort to combat climate change in American history.” It is also the only major climate bill the country has ever passed, so it’s certainly clearing a low bar, but still. It also preserves 93% of the initially proposed spending on climate initiatives, which is a win given how deep and broad some of the other cuts have been and the stiff opposition to climate-related spending presented by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who made most of his wealth from coal, and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who is a chaos agent. The White House believes that this bill will provide the tools to cut the country’s emissions by 50- 52% by 2030.

So what will the $555 billion go toward, exactly? To start, $320 billion will go toward clean energy tax credits, which are meant to encourage utility companies to ditch fossil fuel sources like coal and natural gas in favor of renewable energy. Essentially, the government will pay companies to make the switch and clean up (and modernize) our dirty, old grid. Another $105 billion will be used to protect infrastructure and communities against extreme weather events, as well as establish the Civilian Climate Corps that would work on conservation and climate resilience. From there $110 billion will go toward improving the supply chain for clean energy technology, so supply can meet the newfound demand, and $20 billion will be spent on next-generation research to continue improving clean energy.

All of that is great. What’s not great: The Clean Electricity Performance Program got axed. This small provision was a big deal because it would actively penalize companies that fail to ditch fossil fuels. Instead, we’re left with an incentives-only approach, one that will reward companies that do shift to clean energy, but has no way of punishing those who continue to pollute. It’s all carrots, no stick.

Also gone is the penalty for methane emissions, which would have stung fossil fuel companies that produce the dangerous greenhouse gas while drilling for oil. Emissions from these operations is a big deal, especially after former President Donald Trump killed a law that required companies to address methane leaks. For now, emissions from drilling appears like it will continue without consequence.

The new spending is also likely going to generate a bit of a boost in emissions along the way. There is money in the package earmarked to go to steel and cement manufacturing, and while some of this might be chalked up to a necessary evil in order to build out clean energy infrastructure, it’s also going to create a lot of pollution. Concrete production is already responsible for 4 billion metric tons of greenhouse emissions each year, and that’s likely going to ramp up to meet the current moment.

Should the reconciliation bill pass, it should largely be viewed as a win on climate-related matters. The spending is real, the shift to clean energy is nothing to sneeze at, and it’s easily the biggest step toward a meaningful attempt to combat climate change that the country has taken. Still, it’s a shame that two individuals representing only about 2% of the country were able to keep progress to a small step instead of a giant leap.