How Biden would address climate change in a second term

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News • Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2024

His agenda would focus on long-term investments and practical solutions, such as upgrading transmission lines.

President Joe Biden speaks during an Earth Day event on April 22 in Triangle, Va.

President Joe Biden speaks during an Earth Day event on April 22 in Triangle, Virginia. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Cutting the carbon emissions of cement. Turning electric vehicles into mini power plants. Making cow burps less potent. Upgrading transmission lines. Planting more trees in cities.

These are some of the climate policies President Joe Biden could pursue in a second term, according to former administration officials who helped craft the climate agenda of his first term.

Biden’s presidency so far has focused on big-ticket items, such as enacting regulations to cut emissions from power plants and passing the Inflation Reduction Act, which steers billions of dollars to clean energy. It’s the most aggressive climate policy of any American president in history and potentially puts the U.S. on track to cut carbon emissions in half within the next decade.

But it’s also clear Biden would start a second term with the expectation he must go bigger on climate.

For example, the White House is under pressure to declare a climate emergency — a step that has some support within his administration. Another issue is what to do with liquefied natural gas exports. Biden has paused new approvals for LNG exports; climate activists want him to make it a ban after the election.

The Biden team broadly acknowledged the pressure but offered few specific details. Campaign spokesperson James Singer said if Biden is reelected, he would “build on the historic record and progress of his first term.”

Former advisers say a second Biden term likely would focus on climate solutions that could take decades to play out — but are still necessary to cut emissions.

That includes building out thousands of miles of new transmission lines, rapidly scaling up energy storage solutions and getting more IRA dollars out the door as quickly as possible. That’s because more work needs to be done to reach Biden’s goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030, they said.

“We’ve set a target that matches what the scientists say is needed for cutting emissions in half, and we’re not yet on track to do that,” said Sonia Aggarwal, a former top climate aide to Biden.

Of course, Biden first needs to win reelection. And if Biden does win, it’s not clear what tools or policy levers he would have at his disposal since that authority depends partly on which party controls the House and Senate.

Still, here are some of the climate policy ideas Biden White House veterans would expect to see in a second term.

Transmission and the electrical grid

One priority is ensuring the electrical grid can handle all the new clean energy that will be connected, said Aggarwal, now chief executive officer of Energy Innovation.

A key part of that effort is building new transmission lines, but the process can be extremely slow and expensive — and therefore not ready to meet the clean energy boom that Biden is working to create, she said. A practical goal to achieve in the second term would be to upgrade about 100,000 miles of existing lines, which can be done more quickly than new lines that need to go through the federal permitting process.

“You can really at least double the transfer capacity of an existing transmission line just by putting modern wires on it and that’s a pretty cheap and easy way to get more electricity flowing around, to get all those projects that are waiting in line to get connected to the grid — get more of them connected quickly — which also helps bring down energy prices for people,” she said.

There’s also a need to address the interconnection queues that have stranded some renewable energy projects for a year or more, said David Hayes, Biden’s former special assistant for climate policy. In some places, there are so many new energy sources coming online that the process to connect them to the grid has become bogged down by permitting and other issues.

“A lot of the second term will be all about implementation and deployment of more clean energy and essentially looking at the bottlenecks and addressing them in a disciplined and forward-leaning way,” Hayes said.

Support for green technologies

There are a number of promising technologies for slashing energy use. But they need more federal investment to spur greater innovation, the former aides said.

One is promising arena is the housing and building sector.

There are places where green technology already is in use — such as geothermal heating and cooling — but the effort needs additional funding and research to scale up over the long term, said John Larsen, who was a senior policy analyst at the Department of Energy in the Obama administration and is now a partner at the climate and energy research firm Rhodium Group.

Investing that money now is critical, he added, so the U.S. can reap the rewards as the technology becomes more widespread.

“None of that is going to generate big emissions reductions in this decade, but we know we need those things for the long run,” he said.

Support for energy storage technology also is critical to help keep the power on when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, said Hayes, Biden’s former climate aide.

There are innovative ways of looking at storage that have yet to be tested at scale and new technologies that need a boost so they can see wider implementation, he said. Hayes said a prime example is using the batteries of electric vehicles to help supplement the grid when there’s a spike in energy usage, such as hot weather days.

Also critical: addressing the power demand that occurs in the evening when people come home from work and turn up their air conditioning. EVs that are sitting unused at that time of the day could provide supplemental power to the grid that drives down costs and offers incentives to those who participate in the program.

A second Biden term could help support the entrepreneurship, technology and infrastructure needed to implement such a large-scale program, he said.

“It’s a fantastic, untapped resource that will be continuing to grow, so that sometimes these things are called virtual power plants,” he said. “They’re essentially using available storage to take the place of what would be an additional power plant that would have to turn on power in the evening.”

Decarbonizing the industrial sector

A looming challenge is how to address major parts of the economy that are hard to decarbonize, said Larsen, of Rhodium. One of the toughest: the industrial sector, including cement, steel and aluminum production.

The industrial sector has a high carbon emissions profile, but is much harder and more expensive to decarbonize than cars or power plants because it is so energy intensive, he said. For example, steel production relies on coal that is heated at high temperatures.

Shifting away from that model is also difficult to perform at scale, he said. There are no easy and readily available solutions for the short term either, he said.

The most effective way to address the sector and to provide the necessary funding is through legislation. But that’s a uncertain path that depends on the election.

“Really having some sort of coordinated and holistic approach to industrial emissions is going to be critical to the next round of action on climate and I don’t think anybody has a super clear picture of exactly what that should look like from like an executive authorities perspective,” he said. “It’s already overdue for action, and the longer that goes without touching it, the harder it’s going to get.”

Climate justice

Biden’s first term highlighted the problem of climate resilience, in particular how smart planning could help vulnerable communities. But the solutions have just started to get going, said Cecilia Martinez, the former senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

An area that has only begun to live up to its promise is Biden’s environmental justice Executive Order 14008, she said.

That plan funds resilience and adaptation programs that better prepare the country for a warmer world while prioritizing Justice40, which requires that 40 percent of climate and infrastructure investment go toward front-line communities.

“The first term was really laying the foundation, getting the programmatic staffing and processes in place, which is huge, given the magnitude of what has been happening,” she said. “And I think the second term is really going to be just probably exponential in terms of actual implementation, changing how these programs operate in order to be more effective for communities.”

Part of that push will be more efforts to monitor key IRA energy programs — such as carbon capture and storage from power plants — to assess how they’re affecting local communities and to see if they are meeting the administration’s environmental justice goals.

“Guardrails need to be in place to mitigate the harm but also ensure the benefits,” she said.

Nature-based solutions

Funding from the Inflation Reduction Act has broadly boosted climate solutions, but Biden needs another term to advance it, said Hayes, the president’s former climate aide.

There is more room to explore how to better use nature-based solutions, such as climate-smart agriculture that can cut methane emissions from cow burps and other sources, he said. In addition, the administration can use a second term to more thoroughly evaluate the effectiveness of some solutions.

The Biden administration could use a second term to put in place nature-based solutions that have funding from the IRA but have yet to be rolled out at scale.

One example is building out coastal wetlands to serve as a carbon sink and better handle extreme storms. Another is expanding urban tree-planting programs to provide much needed cooling in some of the hottest cities in the country, such as Phoenix, he noted.

Nature-based solutions can help with emissions and “make communities more resilient in the face of these climate impacts,” he said. “The second term provides a wonderful opportunity to continue to develop it and draw more attention to it and importantly, develop better tools to measure and confirm and verify the benefits because that will attract more capital.”