For climate experts and policymakers, $ 1 trillion is just the start.
As the United States seeks to prove that it is serious about its international climate commitments, the focus is now on whether the Biden administration can pass its spending bill. $ 2 trillion, which includes $ 555 billion to fight climate change and could be the new cornerstone of federal climate policy.
The bipartisan $ 1,000 billion infrastructure bill passed by Congress this month is already committing historic funding levels for climate projects. But experts say the United States will not meet its climate goals or restore its international credibility unless the administration can pass its Build Back Better bill, which features a variety of other climate initiatives and calls for significant investments in clean energy.
The massive dollar numbers give some idea of the scale of the challenge the United States faces in reducing emissions, repairing some environmental damage, and preparing for more climate-related natural disasters.
“These are the biggest climate policy pieces of legislation the United States has seen in a decade,” said Katharine Hayhoe, climate researcher and chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy. “The faster we can act, the better off we’ll be, because we’re already late at the table. The time for half measures was 30 years ago.
The arrangements are particularly timely as the United States attempts to overtake President Donald Trump’s efforts to unwind major climate efforts by pulling the country out of the Paris Agreement and killing a host of environmental protections.
President Joe Biden’s attendance at COP26, the global climate policy summit held in Scotland this month, marked the United States’ return to global climate negotiations after Biden joined the Paris Agreement in January.
US officials at the conference faced a bitter struggle to restore international confidence in US climate commitments.
As part of Biden’s updated COP26 pledge, the United States aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% from 2005 levels by 2030. David Waskow , director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization, said the goal was “quite ambitious,” adding that the United States’ return to international diplomacy on climate change was important in itself.
“It is essential to remember that if you go back a year, there would not have been a US administration engaging constructively in these talks,” Waskow said.
While Biden went to COP26 projecting a new tone, the country’s ability to meet its 2030 goals will likely depend on the success of infrastructure projects and the results of the Build Back Better Act, which, if passed. , could end up being revised down considerably.
Both are needed to meet the country’s emissions targets, experts say.
The infrastructure bill will harden the country’s roads and ports to better cope with the effects of climate change, but it offers comparatively less to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that will intensify climate change.
In Washington state, for example, projects funded by the bill are expected to help redevelop roads and bridges for a warmer, wetter future, boost transit projects like the streetcar, and improve stream crossings for fish struggling with climate change.
Flooding this month following record rainfall in parts of western Washington caused landslides on the state’s busiest highway and dumped floodwaters in small towns – an overview of what climatologists most often expect.
“All the money has, to some extent, an impact on our ability to be more resilient,” said Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat who led a 2020 presidential campaign focused on climate action. “But that doesn’t get us any closer to what we need to reduce the rate at which this flooding is getting worse.”
The infrastructure bill will spend around $ 70 billion to modernize the country’s electricity grid and another $ 7.5 billion to build a network of electric vehicle charging stations, which could accelerate the transition from gas-guzzling cars. .
But from Inslee’s perspective, it only offers a “step” to progress, when the clean energy investments in the Build Back Better bill would be “transformative.”
The law calls for spending more than half a trillion dollars on clean energy investments, incentives and tax credits to move the economy away from fossil fuels.
An analysis by independent group Rhodium indicates that the budget bill could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by nearly a gigaton, which would be roughly equivalent to removing annual light-duty vehicle emissions from U.S. roads. By combining the budget bill with the infrastructure bill and state and local regulations, the United States could meet the Biden emissions target for 2030, with the budget bill representing the “lion’s share.” »Reductions, according to the analysis.
“There is no doubt that the Build Back Better Act is crucial. This can take the United States a substantial distance towards achieving the 50-52% reduction, ”Waskow said.
The legislation also prioritizes environmental justice by allocating 40 percent of the overall benefits of the investment to disadvantaged communities.
The infrastructure bill committed $ 216 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs specifically for climate resilience projects in Indian County, according to the White House. About $ 130 million will go to relocation projects for tribes who need to move away from the vagaries of the weather.
Some tribal communities – including many in Alaska – may have to relocate in the coming decades due to climate risks such as coastal erosion, flooding and thawing permafrost, the Government Accountability Office said in a report from the. last year.
Fawn Sharp, vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation, whose seaside towns in Washington state are threatened by tsunamis, coastal erosion and sea level rise, said her community needed help. ‘at least $ 150 million to complete the higher land uprooting plans – at least $ 20 million more than what is committed for all tribes.
“This is unprecedented and a level of funding that we haven’t seen in our lifetime,” Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indian, said of the infrastructure bill. “While this is important, we have a long way to go to restore tribal nations.”
Climate scientist Jonathan Foley sees reasons to feel encouraged even beyond what is happening in Congress.
“Sometimes we’re obsessed with these big policies, like they’re going to save the world, but the real work of reducing emissions and tackling climate change is often many unseen forces working every day,” Foley said, the executive director. from Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization that provides resources on climate solutions.
Market forces and technological advancements have, for example, helped drive down the cost of solar and wind power, which in turn contributes to the shift away from fossil fuels. The vocal opposition, led especially by young activists, is also pressuring government officials to act, Foley said.
“Good decision makers can accelerate change, but activism, technology and markets are already making things happen on their own,” he said. “It has nothing to do with who is in the White House.”