Policy Can be Repealed; Innovation Cannot
Joe Biden won the Presidency with a massive climate action mandate. His early executive actions and international posture have signaled a desire to act seriously on the issue. Both supporters and opponents have been jockeying and speculating about policies they wish he would or wouldn’t enact. But for him and the whole Biden-Harris administration, a key consideration should be the impermanence of policy.
It’s one thing to decide which set of policies would be the best if enforced over many decades. But as we saw with Trump’s reversal of Obama clean energy and clean air regulations, policies have little inherent durability. Perhaps the most important question for the Biden-Harris team is what executive actions can produce the most irreversible emissions reductions even if his regulations were to be repealed in four years.
There’s a whole category of regulations that, while useful, should be de-emphasized. These are policies that require a certain industry to limit its emissions bit by bit over several decades. For example, the Obama-era Clean Power Plan set interim and 2030 targets for state-by-state power plant emissions reductions. But many states didn’t even start moving in that direction, because they knew the policy could be challenged and repealed — as it was under the Trump EPA. One can imagine a host of similar policies, which if sustained over multiple decades would successfully force industries to cut emissions bit by bit, but which would have little impact if repealed in four years.
Instead, the new Biden-Harris administration should focus their efforts on policies that can produce a rapid scale-up in clean infrastructure manufacturing and deployment, with some research and definitely some demonstration of new or improved technologies. These policies don’t need to have a theoretical, decades-out requirement for full conversion of a sector’s equipment. They merely need to ramp up production of clean equipment to a critical mass in the short term, so the capital cost of that equipment drops. Think about how solar costs have come down exponentially as their deployment has increased from nearly zero a few decades ago. We need to do that with every type of clean infrastructure. From that point, decarbonization will be economically inevitable — not just in the US but around the world.
The good news about this approach is that it’s also the perfect way to put Americans back to work and get our economy out of the pandemic-caused recession. And it’s politically popular — who doesn’t love a national building project? More manufacturing? Better infrastructure? This is, in fact, exactly the promise of the Biden clean energy plan, which he won a large mandate on.
The brilliant part about this approach is that it’s permanent. The innovation — by which I mean cost reduction through any combination of technology development or manufacturing improvement — caused by such a short-term scale-up will mean that clean equipment options become cheaper than their fossil fuel competitors. It will mean costs drop enough that the US can export clean infrastructure even to developing countries (which is crucial, because rapidly-growing, middle-income countries currently emit two thirds of greenhouse gases each year).
Policy can be repealed; innovation cannot.
Policies in this category of more permanent impact include directing military procurement to create a first market for emerging carbon-neutral fuels and clean power plants; or directing loan guarantees, which could be used to incentivize manufacturers to retool their facilities — for example, to produce electric vehicles instead of gas vehicles. (Both steps fall under existing Presidential authority but could be bolstered further by first declaring climate change a national emergency.) Similar financing, as well as simply Presidential convening power, could be used to get full-scale demonstration projects built for various types of emerging clean energy equipment — a key stage of proving a technology’s physical performance and cost at scale to unlock private capital investment in ramping up that technology’s production.
The Biden-Harris administration had a strong clean energy campaign platform, and they will need to focus executive actions on driving rapid demonstration and cost reduction for all types of clean equipment — so that converting global infrastructure to clean options will become an economic inevitability no matter what regulations the US or any country is able to implement or sustain.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose, author of The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change, is a former Massachusetts state legislator and lifelong climate activist. See SolomonGR.com.