The U.S. Congress is (finally) talking about full decarbonization

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31 years and one month after Dr. James Hansen warned the U.S. Senate that Global Warming had begun and posed a serious threat, Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives has finally announced that they will come up with a plan to take the necessary action to deal with it, which is to fully decarbonize the U.S. economy.

The rhetoric in the announcement by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is long but the details are practically non-existent. The committee plans to hold a series of hearings to come up with a plan “to transition the U.S. economy to net zero greenhouse gas pollution by 2050”, the first of which is today.

The following experts will present at today’s hearing:

Karl Hausker
Senior fellow, Climate Program at World Resources Institute
Testimony

Rachel Cleetus
Policy director, Climate and Energy Program at Union of Concerned Scientists
Testimony

Armond Cohen
Executive director, Clean Air Task Force
Testimony

Shannon Angielski
Executive director, Carbon Utilization Research Council
Testimony

 

Green New Deal, minus the New Deal part

This series of hearings comes after decades of legislation calling for a federal renewable portfolio standard, similar to the ones in 29 states and Washington DC. And while some champions like U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) have introduced bill after bill, these have not gotten past the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has been controlled by pro-fossil fuel politicians from both parties.

And if the House Energy and Commerce Committee is finally working on a plan towards bold legislation for full decarbonization, it is likely because of the popularity of the Green New Deal proposal championed by social media star and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-New York).

However, unlike the Green New Deal, which was a mix of decarbonization and social and economic programs, there is no mention of full employment, jobs guarantees, medicare for all, or World War II-style mobilizations in the rhetoric put forward by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

This should not be surprising and speaks to rifts within the Democratic Party in the House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has largely sidelined the newly emergent left wing of the party which has supported the Green New Deal, and appointed committee leaders including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) and Climate Crisis Select Committee Chair Kathy Castor (D-Florida) who represent the mainstream of the party.

 

Going soft on the fossil fuel industry

And just because the House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding hearings does not mean that it necessarily intends to confront the fossil fuel industry, or to call for a plan to transition entirely off of fossil fuels. Of the four experts that will be speaking today, one represents and industry trade group entirely focused on carbon capture and storage, and another is pushing carbon capture and storage as an essential component of deep decarbonization.

One of the highest profile experiments with carbon capture and storage in the electricity sector was an economic disaster. Work on a carbon capture and storage component for the Kemper coal plant in Mississippi was suspended in June of 2017.

But this fossil industry-friendly focus on CCS does not mean that there will be nothing here from renewables – far from it. The presentations by three of the four parties providing testimony envision a main role for renewable energy within decarbonization plans. The testimony of both World Resources Institute and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) cite UCS’ projections that non-hydro renewables – mainly solar and wind – will provide 62-75% of electricity in a system that is 90% decarbonized.

UCS is calling for a “robust suite of policies to drive a diverse set of zero-carbon solutions”, including a price on carbon, a low-carbon electricity standard, tax incentives, grid investments and more.

The full hearing can be viewed here.

 

Long road ahead

Of course, whatever final suite of legislation the Energy and Commerce Committee comes up with, it has a long road ahead. Even before the inevitable vetoes by President Trump are considered, the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate is staunchly opposed to mandatory decarbonization and most if not all strong policies to reduce emissions, so it is unlikely that any meaningful legislation will be able to get a foothold there.

As such, this can be seen as a combination of a political statement by Democratic Party leadership and a dress rehearsal for a post-2020 future where Democrats may control the Senate and/or presidency. However, it must be remembered that pro-coal Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, and could serve as a powerful check on any decarbonization policies that arise.

And in the interim, action will continue at the state level.