House Democrats have released a comprehensive report showing how – if they control the White House and both the Senate and the House of Representatives – they might move forward on climate change. Their “Climate Crisis Action Plan,” released June 30 by the new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, runs more than 500 pages and would move the U.S. toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades.
The committee, established in 2018 when Democrats regained majority control of the House, designed the report with an eye the earlier “Green New Deal” initiative and also on current-day environmental and racial justice concerns. Backers of their effort acknowledge slim chances of enactment of major climate legislation in the current Congress, where Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and where scheduling of floor action is controlled by Kentucky Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The committee pointed to 17 official hearings and countless staff meetings with various stakeholders as a basis for the new Democratic climate plan. The detailed report spells out specific steps for tackling emissions from across a broad cross-section of the U.S. economy. Running throughout the report are themes considering investment in infrastructure and clean energy; worker assistance and efforts to provide a “fairer economy”; environmental justice and efforts to meet the needs of underserved communities; community resilience; public health and new approaches to agriculture; and national security.
Let’s examine some of the specific sectors and policies addressed in the plan.
Speeding the transition to electric cars
Transportation accounts for the largest chunk (29%) of American greenhouse gas emissions. To tackle emissions from this sector, the Democrats’ plan calls for all new passenger vehicles sold in 2035 to be electric, and all heavy-duty truck sales to be electric by 2040.
To achieve those goals, their report recommends that Congress establish a national zero emissions vehicle sales standard (mandating that an increasing percentage of all vehicles sold be zero-emissions). It calls also for extension of and higher electric vehicle tax credits, which currently are being phased-out.
The plan goes far beyond relying solely on electric vehicles to tackle transportation emissions. It calls for doubling funding for public transit; providing more incentives for construction of affordable housing near public transit lines; investing in research and development (R&D) for zero-carbon long-haul trucking, aviation, and shipping technologies; upgrading and expanding rail systems; and providing transportation systems that can withstand worsening climate change impacts.
Electricity – transition to renewable energy sources
Electricity production accounts for the second-largest chunk (28%) of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. To tackle emissions from this sector, the Democrats’ plan calls on Congress to require that more and more electricity in each state be supplied by low-carbon sources, with a goal of achieving net-zero emissions in the electricity sector by 2040. The plan calls also for R&D investments across technologies – particularly involving energy storage. Congress would also direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to develop a comprehensive, long-range electric infrastructure strategy, extend and expand tax credits for wind and solar energy, and develop more incentives for geothermal energy projects.
The Democrats’ report also touches on nuclear power, which currently accounts for about 20% of U.S. electricity generation and half of electricity from zero-carbon sources. It recommends increased inspections at aging nuclear power plants to ensure that they can continue to operate safely as long as possible. It also calls for R&D funding addressing next-generation small modular nuclear reactors, which would cost less and be less complex than conventional large nuclear power plant designs, and calls for legislation to try to resolve nuclear waste storage issues.
Agriculture – sequester carbon and reduce food waste
Agriculture accounts for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions but has the potential to be a major contributor to climate solutions by sequestering carbon. The Democrats’ report notes that “U.S. agricultural soils generally present with 1% or less soil carbon, but studies show that among farmers practicing robust soil health practices, soils present with between 3% to 6% of soil carbon.” Their report calls on Congress to dramatically increase funding for climate-smart agricultural activities and for setting climate stewardship goals across all U.S. farmland.
Congress could also incentivize farmers and ranchers to incorporate energy efficiency and renewable energy on-farm and to protect their farmland from development for non-agricultural uses that would eliminate the potential for carbon sequestration, the report notes. It points to food waste, with 30-40% of available food in the U.S. going uneaten through loss or waste, and backs measures to support local and regional food systems.
Is the plan sufficiently ambitious? Is it realistic?
There is much more to the plan, including measures to make all new buildings net-zero emissions by 2030; plug leaks from oil and gas infrastructure; end subsidies for oil and gas drilling on public lands (though it does not call for an end to all fossil fuel subsidies); put a federal price on carbon pollution; develop technologies to capture carbon from the atmosphere; and put environmental justice at the center of these policies.
The report is bound to attract both adherents and detractors in coming weeks and months, both from some serving in the Senate and the House and from hordes of special interest groups praising or criticizing the plan. A representative of one grassroots climate organization, for instance, early said the plan’s emissions reductions are “wholly inadequate to prevent the risk of catastrophic climate disruption,” suggesting a 2030 deadline for zero emissions.
But there are practical limitations on the speed at which zero-carbon infrastructure can be deployed. For example, a recent report from UC Berkeley concluded that American electricity could be supplied by 90% zero-carbon sources in 2035 and 100% by 2045. The committee Democrats’ plan calls for an even more ambitious goal of 100% by 2040.
Decarbonizing transportation is an even bigger challenge. Global electric vehicle manufacturing is currently projected to reach 45-50 million cars per year in 2035 (up from 10 million per year in 2020). To reach the plan’s goal of 100% new EV sales by 2035, 22 million EVs would be sold as passenger vehicles in the U.S. by that year – nearly half the entire projected global manufacturing capability. The committee’s recommendations recognize the need to increase U.S. manufacturing of EVs and identify key policies to do so, but the target remains exceptionally ambitious and aggressive.
An independent consulting group called Energy Innovation Policy & Technology used its energy policy simulator model to evaluate the effectiveness of the committee’s plan in reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The group found that implementing the plan would reduce American emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. That’s enough to give humanity a shot at meeting the targets set in the Paris climate accords of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial temperatures, and ideally closer to 1.5 degrees C.
Moreover, the group’s modelling estimated the plan would avoid approximately 870,000 premature deaths from air pollution, and would save $4.5 trillion in health benefits, plus provide an estimated $3.4 trillion in climate benefits over just the next 30 years. Those savings would continue to rise at over $1 trillion per year after 2050 thanks to climate disasters avoided. And the UC Berkeley report cited above concluded that transitioning the electricity sector to clean energy alone would create over half a million permanent jobs, primarily in manufacturing and construction.
How and whether eventual legislation and an enacted bill will resemble, or differ from, the House Democrat’s plans in the end will depend on the outcome of the fall 2020 presidential and congressional elections. But for now, the Democrats’ report gives a good sense at least of where they hope to go IF they keep their majority in the House, gain a majority in the Senate … and take over the White House come January 2021.