November 27, 2021

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Manchin Hasn’t Killed Biden’s Climate Agenda (Yet)

Photo: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The cornerstone of Joe Biden’s climate agenda looks dead.

Last week, Joe Manchin told the White House that he strongly opposes the president’s Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), a policy that would require all electric utilities to draw 80 percent of their power from non-carbon sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035. Utilities that complied with this standard would have enjoyed federal subsidies; those that defied it would have paid fees, which would then have been invested in green-energy technology.

This was the most comprehensive decarbonization policy within Biden’s Build Back Better agenda (a.k.a. his “climate-and-social-policy bill,” a.k.a. “the reconciliation bill”). While various other White House proposals would reward green investment and deployment, only the CEPP would punish purveyors of unclean energy. Unless congressional Democrats find an alternative policy that is somehow simultaneously (1) about as effective at putting coal and gas-fired power plants out of business as the CEPP is, and (2) agreeable to Manchin, the U.S. is all but certain to miss its emissions-reduction target for 2030.

Since the U.S. is the world’s largest economy and most powerful nation-state, its failure to rapidly decarbonize could undermine progress in other countries. An America that was prepared to lead by example on climate could use its geopolitical power to force other stragglers into line; an America committed to remaining “part of the problem” on decarbonization will hand a powerful talking point to fossil-fuel interests abroad.

Thus Manchin’s opposition to the CEPP prompted understandable despair from some opponents of ecological catastrophe. At present, the White House is scrambling to put together alternative policies that could achieve the emissions reductions that the CEPP was supposed to. Finding such a mechanism is not just a substantive priority for Biden, but a legislative and diplomatic one. The president will soon need to sell congressional progressives on a vastly compromised version of Build Back Better, as Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema have called for the $3.5 trillion plan’s price to be slashed by more than half. Getting liberals onboard with this was no small challenge, even before Manchin had torpedoed the bill’s signature climate provisions. Meanwhile, the United Nations climate summit looms in November. If Biden arrives in Glasgow without a credible plan to keep his emissions pledges, his influence at the meeting could be severely constrained.

According to the Washington Post, the administration is currently mulling a “voluntary emissions trading system among aluminum, steel, concrete and chemicals manufacturers that would provide federal funding to help companies curb pollution.” Few details of this policy are publicly available. But it is almost certain to be a weaker mechanism for decarbonization than the CEPP, not least because, politically, it needs to be: Manchin doesn’t oppose the CEPP as a means to the end of rapidly phasing out coal and gas; he opposes the end itself.

Given the value of expediting a green transition, it would be worth paying an astronomical price for Manchin’s vote. In the recent past, the West Virginia senator has suggested that he does not want his state’s coal jobs to be replaced with comparatively low-wage “transitional” jobs, such as those in solar installation, but might be amenable to a transition that enabled coal miners to get jobs in wind and solar manufacturing. If Manchin were willing to trade his vote for some kind of federally funded, high-paying complex of wind-turbine factories in West Virginia, then Biden would be well advised to pony up. For the moment, though, Manchin looks more interested in denying his constituents much-needed social benefits than in securing them pork projects.

So, from one angle, things do look quite bleak.

This said, it’s worth noting that even without a CEPP, Build Back Better would reduce carbon emissions substantially. According to an analysis from the climate think tank Energy Innovation, the CEPP was responsible for about one-third of the legislation’s projected emissions reductions. Which is to say: If Manchin leaves the rest of the bill’s climate provisions alone, 66 percent of its initial impact would be preserved.

A separate study indicates that BBB’s clean-energy tax credits will go a long way toward decarbonizing the U.S. power sector by themselves. According to an estimate from Resources for the Future, absent any policy change, emissions from power generation in 2030 will be 43 percent lower than they were in 2005. If the Democrats pass Build Back Better’s green tax credits, power-sector emissions will be 72 percent lower in 2030; with both the CEPP and tax credits, it will be 81 percent lower.

Energy Innovation, meanwhile, estimates that the tax credits would be sufficient to bring clean energy’s share of the U.S. electric grid to somewhere between 61 and 69 percent by 2030, compared to 40 percent today. With the CEPP, that range would be 80 to 85 percent. So passing both the CEPP and targeted tax credits is better than enacting the tax credits alone. But the latter would still do much heavy lifting.

In popular discourse, debates over climate policy are often framed around fixed deadlines and clear binaries. And for good reason: Timelines and targets structure global climate diplomacy. In reality, though, our predicament is less concrete. There are climatic tipping points — thresholds of temperature rise that, once crossed, kick off self-reinforcing feedback loops that will accelerate global warming. But we don’t know precisely how much warming it will take to cross those thresholds. That isn’t a justification for inaction. If 1.6 degrees of warming doesn’t mean certain doom, 1.4 doesn’t guarantee our collective safety either. Already, at 1.1 degrees, climate change means “the end of the world” for about 5 million humans a year. The point is just that there is no clear line demarcating disaster from salvation.

For this reason, if Build Back Better fails to reduce emissions by enough to meet Biden’s target for 2030, its value as a vehicle for decarbonization will not fall to zero. Even if Democrats passed the legislation with the CEPP in place, the policy would still be vulnerable to rollback by Republicans and our conservative judiciary. And even if the CEPP survived conservative attacks, Build Back Better still wouldn’t necessarily be sufficient to make good on Biden’s pledge. Finally, even if America made good on that pledge, the planet’s fate would still be primarily determined by policy decisions in China and India, which our government can influence only indirectly.

None of this makes Manchin’s stance any less contemptible. The fact that climate change is not a binary problem — which is to say, that every tiny bit of warming increases both human suffering and the tail risk of civilizational collapse — makes it more imperative for the U.S. to do what it can to expedite a global green transition. Biden’s climate agenda was inadequate to the scale of the crisis before Manchin took a knife to it. Now it’s roughly 33 percent more inadequate.

Yet since climate change is not a binary problem, the bill is also about 66 percent better than nothing — or at least it will be until Manchin unveils his next demand.

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