By Molly A. Seltzer
It’s 2021, and many hope that the United States will return to a path of reducing its carbon emissions. The Biden administration is expected to propose a flurry of executive orders and support congressional activity to address climate change and undo environmental rollbacks from the previous administration. But what would indicate true climate progress? Jesse Jenkins and Elke Weber chime in on what they are looking out for and hope to happen in 2021, and what would convince them that the United States is really moving forward on climate.
Jenkins is assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. He is an author of a recent study that outlines five distinct technological pathways for the United States to decarbonize its entire economy by 2050, Net-Zero America. The study describes, at a highly detailed, state-by-state level, the scale and pace of technology and capital mobilization needed across the country, and highlights the implications for land use, existing energy industries, employment, and health.
Weber is a Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, professor of psychology and public affairs, and associate director for education at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Her work has focused on the social aspects and psychology behind environmental decision making.
There is a lot of reporting on and speculation about forthcoming green policies – help us sort through the headlines. What would signify to you that we’re making real progress on climate?
Jesse Jenkins (JJ): Expansion of wind and solar and the creation of transmission corridors
If you think about the big-ticket items, where the most money needs to go over the next decade in terms of capital investment, it’s mostly in deploying wind and solar and associated transmission, along with electrifying vehicles and buildings. What I’m mostly concerned about is whether we can site and build the infrastructure needed to expand and deliver more solar and wind power. To be on track to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, we would need to accelerate the rate at which we’re building wind and solar every year for the next decade and beyond. We need to systematically address siting, and not deal with it on a county-by-county or project-by-project basis. There needs to be broader systematic efforts to map out where communities and stakeholders want to see development happen and concentrate efforts in those places. If states and/or the federal government launched a more cohesive effort to preselect areas for development or create transmission corridors, that would be a sign that we’re taking the transition and climate change seriously.
Also, there was a short-term extension of wind and solar tax credits, but we need something to keep that moving beyond the next several years. If there was a federal bipartisan bill that set national targets for decarbonization or laid out continued subsidies for clean electricity, that would be a big step forward. On a state level, the more states that commit to clean energy, the more momentum we’ll have in the power sector, too.
Elke Weber (EW): Signs of a shared reality and a return to the origin of political action
I think we need to reestablish some shared reality. The current polarization of climate action and energy policy is more than just political or the result of a difference in goals. It’s normal for different people to want and need different things. But the fact that we no longer can agree on what is happening and what is real is very worrisome. There are certain norms that must be reestablished. One is the belief that science-based policy is wise policy. In general, science enlarges our evidence base; we cannot make decisions based on our own personal experience and beliefs. The denial of science, fortunately, is somewhat domain-specific. Even hardcore climate deniers still use phones and travel on planes, showing that there is a basic belief in chemistry or physics. Any kind of evidence at the federal level or elsewhere of returning to science-based policymaking will be a sign that we are going in the right direction.
We also need to recultivate an understanding of what political action is for: the promotion of the public good. Democracies were created for the public good, not for the political gain of individual parties. I think many of our politicians have forgotten that. Anything that shows that politicians are more cognizant of that again will be good.
Finally, I also think the legitimatization of a triple bottom line is necessary for long-term sustainability and wellbeing. Without having a safe environment, a sound economic basis, and social equality, we cannot have sustainability; we cannot continue on as a species on this planet without massive upheaval.
If there are policies that reflect these norms or people appointed who hold and enact those values and beliefs, I would see that as progress.
What else needs to be done to put the United States on a path to net-zero emissions?
JJ: Technology policy and major investment
There are a lot of places where additional technology policy and proactive investment are needed. I would be hoping for a bipartisan effort to advance clean firm electricity sources like nuclear, geothermal, natural gas or biomass plants that capture CO2 emissions, and hydrogen combustion turbines. We also need proactive investment to improve all methods to produce hydrogen, including electrolysis with clean electricity, biomass gasification, and methane reformation. That’s an area where there is potential for bipartisanship, and where states like California or New York could take a leadership position.
A couple of tools that could be used are tax policy or stimulus measures this year. The pandemic relief and omnibus budget act passed in December included bipartisan measures that authorized $35 billion in new Department of Energy programs focused on low-carbon innovation and technology, but they are only authorizations at this point and may ultimately go unfunded. Economic recovery or budget bills passed this year will have to appropriate the funds needed to get these programs off the ground. I think that is very doable but will require further policy effort.
This is all important because we must use the coming decade to scale up and improve a set of key technologies that we know work, like electrolyzers to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, biomass gasification, and carbon capture methods, but that are more expensive or less mature than we want them to be. If we don’t spend the next decade improving them and making them low-risk, bankable technologies that you can get financing for, then they won’t be ready for use in the 2030s and beyond. We estimate approximately $130-140 billion of investment is needed in the 2020s to do that, and the policy and regulatory environment must make investment attractive.
What should the Biden administration do immediately?
EW: Be nimble and learn from mistakes early on
I recently argued that during times of crisis—and the new administration will need to deal with the acute COVID-19 crisis and the less acute, but more severe, climate crisis—we need to have governance that is nimble and wise. Nimble refers to a willingness and ability to take prompt and adaptive action; it must become an entity that can overcome the issue of inertia. Wise refers to a willingness and ability to use all available information, to embrace uncertainty rather than avoid or deny it, and to take measures that protect against important downsides of these uncertainties. In science, if you find out that some of your assumptions were wrong, you switch gears. The scientific method has formalized how to learn from both mistakes and successes. Policy formulation and implementation should also be adaptive in this way.
JJ: Support a carbon transportation network
I hope the new administration immediately assembles a task force for planning a new nationwide CO2 transport network; we don’t need to build that immediately, but we need to be planning it immediately. If you work back from the 2030s, in each of our net-zero scenarios, the scale of carbon capture needed is significant and will only be achieved if we have a pipeline system, and that will take years to plan and build. If we don’t start now, it won’t be possible to get it done in time. We need to be figuring out how to build and pay for it, and different options for routing and organizing the network. Do we want a national ‘CO2 superhighway’ system or a set of regional ‘hub and spoke’ systems? We also need to be exploring sequestration basins to understand where we can inject CO2 at a faster rate. Higher injection rates mean fewer wells per million tons of CO2 stored, which means lower costs. We know generally where the basins are, and roughly how much CO2 they can ultimately hold, but we don’t really know how quickly they can accept that CO2. That effort could start right away as part of a stimulus recovery bill to employ out-of-work oil and gas workers. They are not big, bold efforts; they are not going to be trillion-dollar measures, but those kinds of concrete actions pave the way for much-needed large scale investments later in the decade.
What trends are you looking for in the private sector?
EW: Deep public and private sector cooperation
I’d like to see serious private and public sector collaboration. The American public looks to the private sector as a trusted source of input on the importance of climate action. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, comprised of over 100 CEOs of American companies, revised its mission statement to acknowledge corporate responsibility and the importance of supporting the communities and environment in which the companies operate. That was great to see, but action speaks louder than words. Investing in climate action, whether through clean energy finance or political support for putting a price on fossil-fuel externalities, does not have to be the result of a moral compulsion for social responsibility or altruism; if and when our infrastructure and livelihoods get hit by extreme events, that’s not good for business. I’ll be looking for rational action with a longer-term time horizon, and looking for business and government to try and tackle climate change together.
JJ: Walk the walk: use lobbying prowess for good, and be consistent in words and actions
Policy is needed to make it the right business decision to invest in a net-zero path. In order for the country to get to net-zero, companies must also be aligned with this goal, and that’s only going to happen if the policy environment is in place. If it’s the right business decision for companies to work toward net-zero, they may be able to do so at the scale and pace required.
Corporations committed to “green goals” and a net-zero future should not be making long-lived capital investments that are inconsistent with a net-zero future, whether that’s expanding natural gas reserves beyond what we need or building a new conventional blast furnace steel plant. In order to make that possible and still be competitive, those companies need to start lobbying for the right policies to support their efforts.
It’s one thing for companies to support a symbolic “marker bill” that’s never going to see a floor vote or in theory to support a carbon tax. It’s another thing to support a bill that’s actually moving on the floor and/or not opposing a real one. What we’ve seen in the past with oil and gas companies is that when an actual carbon pricing policy comes to the floor or the ballot, they often kill it by lobbying against it. Obviously, the policymaking process is not ideal but if there is a viable policy moving at a state or federal level, and companies talking about net-zero are not on the right side of that, then corporate pledges don’t mean much. I hope that I see them on the right side of history.
For oil companies, that may mean supporting carbon taxes or even electric vehicle tax credits and charging infrastructure because they think that’s the direction the world is going. For heavy industries, that may mean advocating for tax credits to retool and install low-carbon processes or to impose a carbon import tariff so they are not hurt by overseas competitors that don’t do the same environmental measures. For utilities that means supporting a national clean electricity standard or carbon pricing in the power sector. It also means that public utility commissions may need to allow a rate of return on investment in clean electricity infrastructure, even if the projects are more expensive than a natural gas plant.
I still think it’s the interplay of government policy and the corporate sector, and their alignment on policies, that is important; they both need to work together to enable the deployment of clean technologies and make the technology cheap enough to bring online rapidly and at scale.