The Energy 202: Key House Democrats propose eliminating climate-warming emissions by 2050

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2019

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Key House Democrats are proposing a 2050 deadline to eliminate the country’s climate-warming emissions — a goal more ambitious than seen in past proposals from Democratic leadership in Congress but one that still falls short of calls from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others who support the Green New Deal.

The plan, announced by lawmakers on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, demonstrates how much the Democratic Party as a whole has shifted leftward on the issue of global warming a decade after it failed to marshal enough votes in the Senate to pass sweeping climate legislation.

“It’s a rather aggressive approach. Is 2050 ambitious? Absolutely,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (R-N.Y.), architect of the “100 by 50” plan announced Tuesday and chair of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on climate change and the environment.

The proposal from Tonko, committee chair Frank Pallone (N.J.) and energy subcommittee chair Bobby L. Rush (Ill.) is not an actual piece of legislation just yet. But it comes from the leaders of the committee with primary jurisdiction over climate change in the House. During a press conference Tuesday, the trio said the committee will hold hearings over the next several months to line up a bill or series of bills before the end of the year.

The legislators were light on specifics, but achieving such sweeping emissions reductions will likely involve vastly curbing the use of fossil fuels across economic sectors while expanding and even inventing new ways of producing and storing energy from renewable sources like wind and solar.

But a deadline of 2050 is not aggressive enough for many in the party’s left flank, bringing into relief an intraparty rift over just how quickly to reshape the U.S. economy to ramp down the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Advocates of the Green New Deal — a framework for tackling climate change put forward by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and backedby more than a dozen Democrats running for president — are calling for the United States to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by the end of the next decade rather than by the middle of the century.

And the latest Democratic plan was met with resistance from some environmentalists. “Pushing the deadline for action to 2050 waves the white flag of surrender,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. “These representatives are punting the greatest challenge the world faces to their children and grandchildren.”

Yet as Republicans seek to tarnish the Green New Deal proposal as socialist, the latest plan appears to have an eye toward teeing up a legislative package that could win broader support among Democrats, should one unseat President Trump in the next election.

“This is an attempt by moderate Democrats to reclaim the climate issue, pushing back against Trump’s climate rollbacks but also against more radical Green New Deal proposals they worry could become a political liability for Democrats in 2020,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former Clinton White House climate adviser.

However, even the 2050 target will be hard to hit. Nearly two-thirds of electricity in the United States is generated by coal, natural gas and oil, and the vast majority of cars are powered by internal combustion.

The lawmakers behind the plan point to the conclusions of the world’s climate scientists, saying there is no choice but to decarbonize that quickly. In October, a United Nations panel of hundreds of scientists found that to keep the Earth’s warming to moderate levels, the world would need to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

“I think there is basically a consensus within the scientific community,” Pallone said.

Still, Green New Deal backers want an accelerated timeline for the United States because, as the world’s richest country, it is better able to make the transition to a lower-carbon economy than most others are.

“Pallone, Tonko, and Rush are misrepresenting the science when they say getting to ‘net zero greenhouse gas pollution by 2050 is consistent with the global scientific community’s consensus,’ ” said Varshini Prakash, head of the Sunrise Movement, an activist group that has protested in the offices of top House Democrats in support of the Green New Deal.

She continued: “That is what the world’s top scientists at the United Nations are saying, conservatively, is necessary to achieve globally. It’s clear that if we are to achieve that goal globally, the United States — as one of the world’s largest and most developed economies — must move much more aggressively.”

Like the Green New Deal proposal, the “100 by 50” plan is noncommittal on ideas sometimes controversial among environmentalists, like building a new generation of nuclear reactors or incentivizing the capture of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel power plants.

But Tonko expressed his desire to place a price on carbon emissions. Congressional Democrats tried to do just that in 2009 with a cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but never made it through the Senate.

“Let the market resolve many of these issues,” he said. “We’re going to rely on that market base to do this economy-wide solution.”

Besides that, the lawmakers offered both Republicans and Green New Deal supporters the chance to help craft the legislation, citing the committee’s history of shepherding through Congress major pieces of environmental legislation, such the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, on a bipartisan basis.

“What we’re really trying to do here is come up with a united front,” Pallone said. “So as we move in the fall to having these hearings and trying to develop a piece of legislation, the ideas that come from the Green New Deal and from those who have been outspoken on the Green New Deal are things that we certainly want to hear.”