Political allies are now acknowledging what scientists who analyze U.S. policy options have confirmed: There’s virtually no viable path to slashing U.S. emissions in line with Biden’s 2030 target—at least not without major legislation that appears increasingly remote. “I am certainly grateful for the improvements we’ve seen under this administration, but it hasn’t gotten nearly far enough to be considered on track to address the climate crisis,” says Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who is a leading progressive in the House of Representatives.
At the center of this setback is an evenly split U.S. Senate that puts West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Democrat from a coal- and gas-rich state with a personal fortune tied to fossil fuel, in a position to make or break legislation. A proposal championed by the White House to spend around $555 billion on climate and clean-energy measures have stalled, and the approaching midterm elections make passage unlikely.
Without that half-trillion dollars in new spending, the scientists who study pathways for cutting U.S. emissions can’t see a way to deliver on Biden’s promise. “Congress has to act, and they have to act in a pretty substantial way,” says Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, an energy and climate think tank in San Francisco. Otherwise, he says, “there is no way.”
The setbacks haven’t been limited to legislation. Last month, the Biden administration ordered the release of 180 million barrels of crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve after pleading with both OPEC and U.S. producers in the Permian Basin to bring more oil and gas to market. A White House that initially paused the sale of oil and gas leases on federal land has resumed those auctions (albeit with much less acreage available for drilling). Candidate Biden may have called climate change “the number one issue facing humanity,” but President Biden has focused more visibly on the immediate challenge of sky-high gasoline prices as Russia’s war in Ukraine drives worldwide energy inflation.
Climate hawks inside the administration still insist none of these reversals will derail Biden’s mission to cut a gigaton of greenhouse gas from the U.S. economy by 2030. White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy acknowledged on April 21 that Europe’s current energy needs had taken precedence over climate goals in the short term. Asked how the administration was balancing the two, she said, “We’re actually not balancing right now.”
“Right now, we’re working on an emergency problem that the EU and we have on energy prices and security,” McCarthy said on the sidelines of a renewable energy summit in Washington. “But our goals remain the same—and that’s clean energy.”
Hard numbers tell a different story. Biden campaigned on creating a 100% clean electrical grid across the country by 2035. But the U.S. burned roughly 25% more coal to keep the lights on in Biden’s first year in White House than in the year prior under the openly pro-coal leadership of President Donald Trump. Output of greenhouse gas in 2021 also surged by an estimated 6% from 2020 levels as the economy recovered from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm.
Political damage to Biden and the Democratic Party could come from both the failure to achieve meaningful goals and backlash from persistently high energy prices. But the impact will be far worse for the planet. A United Nations-backed panel of scientists recently warned that greenhouse gas pollution must peak “at the latest before 2025” to keep Paris Agreement targets alive. That would require the largest emitters, including the U.S., to meet or exceed current emission-cutting goals.
If nations fall short by following their current trajectory, the scientists project warming of 2.7°C—far outside the Paris target of holding warming well below 2°C. Reaching that level of warming would painfully remake societies and life on the planet.
A few months into 2021, it looked likely that Biden would disrupt U.S. climate policy beyond what any prior president had achieved. He rejoined the Paris Agreement and revoked a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline on his very first day in office. A week later he signed directives that suspended new oil and gas leasing on public lands, created a new climate envoy position and domestic climate policy office in the White House and instructed federal agencies to identify and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies they provided. His American Jobs Plan took aim at a raft of tax breaks for polluting industries.
Before long the White House and the Democratic majority in the U.S. House advanced a blueprint for trillions of dollars in spending on climate and social programs, known as Build Back Better (BBB). One initiative, in a sprawling package that included subsidies for childcare and paid leave for new parents, would have penalized electric utilities for moving too slowly to clean up their power portfolios. The measure also would have created or expanded tax credits for emission-free nuclear power, electric vehicles, power storage, renewable electricity and advanced energy manufacturing.
This first-of-its-kind U.S. climate legislation spawned a new breed of real-time watchdogs among the small cluster of experts who specialize in measuring the relationship between policy and emissions.
Independent analysts regularly crunch the numbers on budget implications for new congressional legislation, and federal agencies assess environmental impacts when they write major regulations. But this appears to be the first time ever that scientists routinely tried to model the effects on emissions of a massive bill moving through Congress.
The development was possible because greenhouse gas models have become increasingly sophisticated. They can estimate, for example, how many wind farms will be created for every $100 million in renewable energy tax credit, and how much less carbon would be emitted with tightening of the tailpipe emissions standards.
Three different research groups—the Repeat Project at Princeton University, Energy Innovation and the Rhodium Group—started to publicly make available the detailed calculations of their models, often within days of updates to proposed legislation. Every new twist in negotiations on Capitol Hill, with climate provisions adjusted and subtracted, brought fresh projections of how much each proposed action would reduce greenhouse gas.
When the U.S. House of Representatives was marking up the legislation in the fall of 2021, modelers were reviewing the marked up bills in real time as they were released, trying to get details of what was in the bill and what was out. Two of the modelers, Repeat and Energy Innovation, were also sharing data with each other as they tried to interpret the revised text.
“At one point we were desperately trying get the updated text and a list of what changed from the Rules Committee,” recalls Robbie Orvis of Energy Innovation. “Then we got the 2,000-page document and were trying to decide when to pull the trigger and update the models based on the new language.”
Both groups began rapidly updating their modeling to ensure there would be analysis of the final bill before it was voted on. But the next day, another amended version was released, with many changes from the previous version. So they started the work over again.
It was exhausting but also exhilarating because of the potential. Back in October 2021, at the peak of optimism about BBB, the modeling groups independently came to similarly bullish conclusions. The climate and energy provisions in the bill, combined with actions under way at the state level and aggressive executive-branch moves to strengthen regulation, would likely deliver on Biden’s promises. By 2030, the U.S. would see a 50% reduction in economy-wide carbon emissions as well as an electric grid thrumming with 80% clean energy.
On Twitter, Princeton’s Jesse Jenkins offered a succinct verdict: “It looks like the White House’s claims that the Build Back Better Framework will deliver ‘well over a gigaton’ of emission reductions by 2030 is very legit. Probably understated actually.”
The rosy forecasts abated by December as Manchin announced that, even after modifications made at his request, he would not vote for Build Back Better. “It was a gut punch,” say Orvis.
Jenkins now runs the same emissions-modeling exercises on what the Biden administration has managed to achieve. Mostly this comes from the impact of the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in November, which dedicated $7.5 billion to installing electric vehicle chargers across the U.S. and created a new government program for capping orphaned oil wells that can leak methane. The administration has also imposed new energy efficiency mandates, a rule phasing out hydrofluorocarbons and tailpipe emission standards.
The result on greenhouse gas output by 2030? ”Not much,” Jenkins says in an interview. “About 9% at most,” out of Biden’s promise to achieve a 50% cut.
Orvis’s model, the Energy Policy Simulator, now projects annual emissions in 2030 to be about 5.2 billion metric tons, compared to 5.5 billion metric tons last year. “The modeling shows the standards that the Biden administration has passed will have a meaningful impact,” he says, “but well short of what is needed.”
Biden’s minimal strides toward climate progress can’t simply be laid down to the frustrations of his party’s one-vote Senate majority. There are also wild-card forces that may profoundly affect the country’s emissions trajectory. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year heard arguments in a case that could potentially gut the authority of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. A decision in that case is expected by July and could severely limit what Biden can do without congressional support.
In addition, the administration has been beset by setbacks on its own doorstep even within the executive branch. Two federal bodies that are still controlled by Trump appointees have directly bucked Biden’s climate vision in recent weeks. The U.S. Postal Service just released a $6 billion contract for new trucks that will be spent mostly on vehicles with internal combustion engines, rather than electric ones. And last month the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest federal utility, moved to invest $3.5 billion in new natural gas infrastructure.
Both decisions represent the dreaded lock-in of emissions. The gas-guzzling mail trucks will remain on the road, generating planet-warming pollution, for a decade. New natural gas plants, once built, could remain in use for more than 50 years.
Judging by both modeled results and Biden’s climate critics, the Biden administration hasn’t done nearly as much as might have been expected through regulatory action. It’s taken initial steps to regulate methane, a super-charged greenhouse gas, and to tighten car tailpipe emissions. But those regulatory efforts come in far short of what his biggest advocates hoped for.
“I’d say Biden’s climate legacy is a tragic disappointment,” says Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. The environmental group has given Biden a grade of C- on a one-year report card evaluating his environmental record. “He has to use his executive powers and not let Joe Manchin block progress.”
Administration officials refused to write off Biden’s green goals, saying the president is leading with action, not just words, and that his climate agenda is very much alive. Tangible examples of progress include U.S. government’s approval of the first commercial-scale offshore wind project in federal waters, tailpipe emissions limits backed by automakers and efforts to enhance the nation’s electrical grid. All of these gains have been included in the models—without much payoff in emissions, however.
If there’s any good news from the climate modelers, it’s that they don’t believe short-term compromises, such as releasing oil from reserves or even some drilling on public land, will have much of a long-term effect on emissions. Biden also has promised to help supplant Russian natural gas in Europe with supplies from the U.S. and elsewhere. The modelers haven’t yet attempted to gauge the consequences of that decision.
High oil and gas prices caused by fallout from Russia’s war could also drive down emissions faster than the models predict, since renewable energy and nuclear power will become more cost effective. This could help speed the addition of zero-emission electricity to the U.S. grid.
Yet the modelers and other observers agree the best hope for Biden’s climate plans are the millions of dollars in multi-year tax credits for nuclear plants, hydrogen, electric vehicles, renewable power, carbon capture and other clean-energy technology still stuck in the Senate. Manchin has indicated his willingness to move those forward, but not without sweeteners for domestic fossil-fuel production, which may be a deal-breaker for other Democrats. He met with fellow senators on April 25 to gauge interest in a bipartisan energy and climate bill that could revive some measures from BBB, but that may be a long shot; it would require at least 10 Republican votes as well as the support of progressive Democrats.
The most aggressive among environmental groups and Democrats would like to see Biden declare a climate emergency that would unlock additional executive powers to shut down crude oil exports, suspend offshore drilling and redirect funding towards clean-energy projects. Such a tactic might be the only way to move forward if Republicans take Congress in the midterms in November, as is currently expected.
That would mark a dramatic turnabout from the recent moves by the White House. For climate hawks, there’s still a chance the president will use his bully pulpit to tell voters that the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels enables Russian President Vladimir Putin and other petro-state leaders to wield oil and gas as a weapon. The only thing holding Biden back, they say, is his timidity and adherence to traditional political rules.
Rep. Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois, believes there’s still time for a Churchill moment on the energy transition: “I wish the White House had the self-confidence to lean in on this,” he says.