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Biden’s Climate Summit and the Practical Path to Decarbonization

protestor holding sign that says "climate action now"
Photo: Jasmin Sessler

Following four years of Trump’s climate denial, the Biden administration has gone all in and is starting to articulate a comprehensive climate policy. In late April, they will convene a virtual climate summit on Earth Day and have invited China and Russia to the table. Biden’s infrastructure program planning is heavily focused on climate and employment, and the entire federal government’s regulatory and purchasing power is being deployed to reduce carbon emissions. All of these steps are moves in the right direction, but how do we actually get from here to there? How do we reduce enough greenhouse gasses to actually mitigate climate change?

Government investment in motor vehicle electrification and electric grid modernization is one part of the puzzle. But a better electric system only helps if the energy generated is renewable. A smarter grid will permit distributed generation of energy that facilitates home and business renewable energy generation and battery-based storage that can provide shared energy to the system. Charging stations on lampposts, in parking areas and convenience store parking lots can encourage electric vehicle purchases. Tax subsidies for electric vehicles and cash for retiring internal combustion clunkers can speed up the decarbonization process.

What role does international diplomacy play? For nations like China and Russia, their reliance on fossil fuels will continue as long as it stimulates their economic growth. In the United States, fossil fuel economic interests will continue to exercise political power, especially in places like Texas. Diplomacy and dialogue are important but are constrained by perceived economic self-interest. Many climate policy advocates believe that only a carbon tax will accelerate the process of decarbonization. I disagree. First, because it is not politically feasible, so pursuing it in the United States is a waste of time. Second, because, despite claims to the contrary, the payments to poor people who pay a high proportion of their income on energy will lag behind carbon tax refunds. Third, because lowering energy costs through renewables is a far sounder strategy than increasing costs through a tax. Instead, we need to subsidize basic and applied research to develop less expensive and more reliable forms of renewable energy in order to drive fossil fuels from the marketplace. This is particularly important for global economic competition. Economies burdened by old and expensive fossil fuel–based energy systems will lose competitive advantage to those economies that rely on lower-cost renewable energy. This competition rather than diplomacy will be the engine that accelerates the speed of decarbonization.

This brings me to Biden’s climate summit. These meetings are propaganda exercises that provide nations with the opportunity to demonstrate their good intent. According to Ellen Knickmeyer and Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press:

“The Biden administration hopes the stage provided by next month’s Earth Day climate summit — planned to be all virtual because of COVID-19 and publicly viewable on livestream, including breakout conversations — will encourage other international leaders to use it as a platform to announce their own countries’ tougher emission targets or other commitments, ahead of November’s U.N. global climate talks in Glasgow.”

The propaganda value of these pronouncements is substantial, but it is a long way from talk to action. Many nations, including China and Russia, have strict laws prohibiting environmental pollution, but they are not enforced. Economic development is a far higher priority than environmental protection in many regimes, and many politicians do not understand the potentially transformative nature of a green economy: Pollution is waste, and an economy that wastes less is by definition more efficient and more competitive. The old way of thinking will persist, and the only way to change hearts and minds is to demonstrate the competitive power of a modern, carbon-free energy system. Fossil fuel interests will persist in their political battles until their profits are eliminated by technological disruption in the energy business, and they no longer have the means to exert influence.

While current technology can start the decarbonization process, U.S.-funded basic and applied research will be needed to enable new technologies to rapidly displace the old ones. We need less expensive and more efficient solar cells and batteries. What we have now reminds me of the early suit-case-sized version of cell phones. Current technology works, but the price and reliability advantage of renewable energy and electronic vehicles must become so obvious that consumers feel idiotic if they don’t switch to the new technologies.

The diffusion of new technologies through a nation’s economy does not adhere to a single path, although we have plenty of examples of technological displacement. Autos replaced horses, cell phones displaced landlines, DVDs replaced videotapes which were then displaced by streaming video. Wired internet access was augmented by wireless access. The new technologies must be introduced to consumers and accepted by them. Price, convenience, and reliability are key factors, but some new technologies create their own demands. The ability to search the web for restaurant reviews when walking on the street and deciding where to dine was not something we knew we needed. Getting directions from a GPS system modified by traffic reports is great, but how did it become a necessity? Letters were replaced by emails, displaced by text messages, augmented by FaceTime and Zoom calls.

Many people have experienced blackouts and energy disruptions and are buying generators as grid back-up systems. Home energy costs continue to grow. Young people are worried about climate change. All of this creates a fertile market for decentralized, renewable energy. As a society, we have an interest in facilitating the sharing of these sources of energy, and individuals would benefit from an electric meter that both adds and subtracts from their monthly bills. What is missing is truly transformative technologies. Inventions that make solar cells cheaper, more efficient and easier to install. Engineering that enhances energy storage and reduces the size and cost of batteries. We also lack massive public investment in smart grid energy infrastructure — but that may finally be on the way. The Biden team seems ready to fund the research, subsidize the infrastructure and use tax incentives to encourage mass adoption of renewable energy technologies. As these changes gather momentum in the United States, we will need to use foreign aid and the tax code to stimulate business to sell these new technologies to the rest of the world.

Government must exhort, push and prod but cannot and should not dictate. The economic benefits of decarbonization have been fully accepted by the Biden administration, and in their press release announcing the Earth Day Summit, they note that two of the summit’s key themes are:

  • “The economic benefits of climate action, with a strong emphasis on job creation, and the importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy.
  • “Spurring transformational technologies that can help reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, while also creating enormous new economic opportunities and building the industries of the future.”

The pandemic-induced economic slow-down, the fragile unity of control by the president’s political party, and the increased understanding of the global climate crisis create a unique, if limited, opportunity for Joe Biden. This most conventional of political figures may well emerge as a transformative president. His leadership and the deep, world-class climate team he has assembled, combined with the unique economic environment we find ourselves in, provide the opening required to get from here to there. The Earth Day Climate Summit provides an opportunity to share this vision across the globe. Unlike other environmental issues, this one cannot be addressed one nation at a time. Nevertheless, practically speaking, in a world of sovereign nation-states, the action will need to be at the national and local level. As difficult as that is to accomplish, it is impossible without American leadership. With that leadership re-established, the impossible becomes possible once again.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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3 years ago

Someone could have been honest about how progressive Biden really is before the elections. I am in shock about all of this. How were we ready for this change. So I have to buy a new car. Everything is so crazy. No one is talking about the UN FOOD SYSTEM SUMMIT, that will be very huge.