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Is Biden Serious About Emissions Reductions or Not?

If he is, then he shouldn’t let Manchin stop him.

Joe Biden stands, holding a folder.
President Joe Biden at the COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November

In April, the Biden administration revealed an American Jobs Plan, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This, the plan text stated, is “consistent with the President’s goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2050 and of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the science demands.”

In the past eight months, the plan has changed considerably. Following centrist Democratic attacks on both top-line numbers and specific climate-related provisions, a formerly $6.5 trillion reconciliation budget (complete with plenty of climate spending) became a $3.5 trillion package to be spent over 10 years. What the House actually passed in November was just $1.7 trillion to be doled out along the same timeline, without the Clean Energy Payment Program that formed the backbone of the White House’s goals for the power sector. The Clean Energy Payment Program had been opposed by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who made a half a million dollars off his family’s coal company last year. Finally, by announcing December 19 that he would not vote for the bill in its current form, Manchin may have killed the package entirely. If it does get through, still more of the emissions-reductions measures will almost definitely be on the chopping block.

The absolute best-case scenario is that Manchin and the U.S. government will by some miracle agree to spend roughly $55 billion per year—$550 billion in climate spending, parsed out over a decade—to keep the planet habitable. That outcome looks less and less likely by the day.

Meanwhile, the administration still says it’s committed to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). “We can keep the goal of limiting global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius within our reach if we come together, if we commit to doing our part for each of our nations with determination and with ambition,” Biden told attendees of U.N. climate talks in Glasgow last month. John Kerry repeated this line in Paris in early December.

But the 1.5 degree goal, several climate scientists told me, isn’t achievable with the legislation on the table or the limited set of executive authorities the White House has been willing to dip into so far.

“It’s not a standard that they hold U.S. policy up to, as far as I can see,” Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, told me of the White House’s continued appeals to the 1.5 degree target. “They at least integrate it into their rhetoric,” a small win considering how long climate-vulnerable countries have pushed to make that the world’s agreed-upon target, “but I don’t see it being used as any kind of yardstick by the administration.”

“For the U.S. to be serious about 1.5 degrees Celsius—which Biden says he is—then you would need zero emissions from energy by 2030, or 2035 at the very outside; 2035 would put you more on a two-degree pathway,” Uppsala University climate scientist Kevin Anderson told me in Glasgow. Keeping to that 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, in other words, requires slashing power-sector emissions by double what’s been pledged. That increasingly looks out of reach.

Anderson is careful to say “zero emissions.” Not “net-zero emissions,” a phrase that’s become popular among politicians and titans of industry alike in the last several years, including in Washington. Net-zero, in its simplest and most theoretical form, means cutting emissions partway and then using some kind of technology (or an unimaginable quantity of plants) to suck the rest out of the air. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that either these technological or “nature-based” solutions would work at scale: The nonprofit ActionAid has found that Royal Dutch Shell meeting its own net-zero plan by 2030 would require a land area three times the size of the Netherlands. Asked to define net-zero, Anderson simply called it a “force for delaying change.”

“You can say OK, well, expand the airports now, and we’ll change mink husbandry in 2035,” Anderson said. “It moves that burden from today out into the future.” He also pointed to the way “net-zero” rhetoric has been used as cover for policy plans that do little more than toggle between different types of greenhouse gases, like long-lived carbon dioxide and shorter-lived methane.

“The assumptions that are being made about negative emissions in climate modeling are getting to ludicrous proportions,” Kartha agreed. “There’s a whole set of them that are assuming that the amount of land that’s devoted to negative emissions and biofuels production is on par or greater than the amount of land that is currently devoted to agriculture. Agriculture is the main impact we’re having globally on the surface of the world, the main cause of biodiversity loss. It’s preposterous to think we could just double that without consequences.”

Since the Paris Agreement was brokered, 240 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been poured into the atmosphere, shrinking the amount of carbon the world can burn before crossing the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold. That’s what’s known as a carbon budget. “The smaller the budget,” Anderson said, the faster humans would have to somehow magically make carbon-sucking forests and machines appear, under the net-zero fantasy: “At some point you can’t do it. That ongoing failure means that every year you fail, you’ve got to ramp up your negative emissions. And that’s what we do. We just turn up the dial.”

The challenge of decarbonization in the near-term is enormous. Just about 20 percent of energy demand in the United States comes from the electricity grid, Anderson added, which would need to increase “by a factor of three or four” to be on the right track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That means our 280 million cars and trucks; 70 million furnaces; 60 million water heaters; 20 million dryers; and 50 million stoves, ovens, and cooktops need to be replaced with electricity-powered alternatives within the time that passed between Taylor Swift’s Fearless and Fearless (Taylor’s Version). All of the electrons that flow to them will need to come from zero-carbon sources, too.

Most of the climate money in the most recent version of the House spending bill—about $300 billion—gets at that last, vitally important bit: deploying renewables, via tax credits. Electric vehicles get some cash via refundable tax credits, too.

But the bill doesn’t have enough money for the sort of large-scale infrastructure projects that would be needed to make an earnest U.S. contribution to the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal a reality. Just $6 billion of the bill that passed the House is devoted to “qualifying electrification projects” for appliances. Rebates that could be included under this umbrella would still leave households that want to electrify their heating systems having to pay some $10,000; 40 percent of Americans don’t even have $400 in the bank to cover emergencies. Another $6 billion for home energy efficiency upgrades would be doled out by state governments over 10 years, in increments of $2,000 to $4,000 to households that want to make the leap.

“I’m sure some good can come out of it in some sectors,” Anderson says of the reconciliation bill. “But from a climate point of view, it’s like spending a cent. Spend a cent and you’ll be about as near to making a difference as spending $55 billion a year.”

The administration doesn’t seem poised, either, to make a meaningful dent in fossil fuel production. “I do not want to fight with any of you,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told the National Petroleum Council, an advisory body of fossil fuel executives, earlier this month. She was assuring them she would not reinstate the crude oil export ban, lifted by the Obama administration in 2015. The world is currently on track to produce double the amount of fossil fuels that it can burn and stay within the 1.5 degree target; the hardly progressive International Energy Agency has said that no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built if the world is to keep within those bounds. If 1.5 degrees Celsius is the goal, a fight with the fossil fuel industry is inevitable. Pretending otherwise is denial.

Still, Granholm is not alone in wanting to make nice with fossil fuel companies. In the reconciliation package, Manchin and Republicans are now eager to scrap modest constraints on expanded carbon capture and storage tax credits that require fossil-fueled plants to capture a certain amount of their emissions to qualify for the credits. Fossil fuel plants being eligible for such benefits with no strings attached could end up making it profitable to build new fossil fuel power plants that would lock in planet-heating emissions for decades to come.

The Biden administration has been appeasing fossil fuel companies in other ways, too. Despite having no legal obligation to do so—and having pledged to do the opposite—the Biden administration approved the largest-ever sale of leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands just days after the Glasgow climate talks. Even if electrified green infrastructure were being built and connected to the grid at unprecedented rates, the U.S. would still be producing an enormous amount of fossil fuels for exports, which have grown drastically since the shale boom. Oil Change International, Earthworks, and the Center for International Environmental Law found that while U.S. oil consumption remained stagnant from 2015 to 2020, production in the Permian Basin ballooned by 135 percent; following the lifting of the crude oil export ban, crude oil exports grew by 600 percent. And just because much of that oil and gas isn’t burned on U.S. soil doesn’t make it carbon-neutral. Ballooning production in the Permian alone, a recent report from the same researchers found, is expected to burn through nearly 10 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget for staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

All of the above would be troubling if the U.S. existed in a vacuum. But it doesn’t, and every ton of emissions the U.S. produces to line shareholder pockets is another ton that will have to be reduced elsewhere, most likely in parts of the world with far fewer resources to make a rapid transition. If the U.S. were to account both for the fossil fuels it is exporting currently and for its outsize historical responsibility for the climate crisis, Kartha and Climate Action International have calculated, it would need to cut its emissions not just 50 percent by 2030, as the Biden administration claims it wants to, but in fact 70 percent (5 gigatonnes) domestically by 2030, while also paying and assisting logistically with making an additional 9 gigatonnes of emissions reductions possible elsewhere. Overall, that would mean a 195 percent reduction in what the U.S. emits now within the next decade. Right now, Kartha told me, “there’s no recognition, no acknowledgment whatsoever of the global situation and our role in it.”

There are very real constraints, obviously, on what even the most ambitious of White Houses or Democratic Parties could accomplish given punishing congressional math and a Supreme Court with a 6–3 right-wing majority. But the administration has a much wider array of tools at its disposal than those it’s currently using, especially on the international front. It could, for example, use its outsize influence in international institutions to relax intellectual property protections on life-saving green technologies at the World Trade Organization, or expand Special Drawing Rights in the International Monetary Fund, a basket reserve currency which could help both eliminate debt burdens and finance desperately needed climate spending. By way of example, Kartha said, “Is there anything that we’re doing with regards to our trade policies and how that affects flows of high-carbon materials? There’s just scant little that the U.S. is doing on those fronts.”

The atmosphere doesn’t care about American political realities. It also doesn’t care about shiny rhetoric or net-zero pledges. “The climate science community was absolutely rocked by people drowning in their basement apartments in New York and the intensity of the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest,” climate scientist Peter Kalmus told me. “And that’s at 1.2 degrees Celsius. What else are we going to be blindsided by at 1.5?”

The situation demands a no-holds-barred approach. “We’re already losing a lot now, and every fraction of a degree of heat, even a fraction of a tenth of a degree, means that we lose more,” Kalmus said. “The only kind of framing that really makes sense is to minimize what we lose and minimize death. We need to go as fast as we can.”