Joe Biden’s pledge to make the climate emergency a top priority of his administration from day one has received a major boost from the $900bn Covid-19 relief bill that cleared Congress this week and now awaits Donald Trump’s signature.
The president has demanded changes but nonetheless the package has been hailed by environmental groups as an important move towards re-engaging the US with international efforts to tackle the climate crisis and move towards a clean energy future.
“The bill contains some truly historic provisions that represent the most significant climate legislation passed by Congress in over a decade,” said Sam Ricketts, co-founder of Evergreen Action.
The Sierra Club, an environmental group which operates in all 50 states, expressed a sigh of relief that Republican intransigence, led by the president and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, had finally been overcome. Kirin Kennedy, the group’s deputy legislative director, expressed confidence that the bill would contribute towards “addressing major sources of pollution, growing clean energy, and making progress across government agencies to advance climate action”.
But she added that the Biden administration had a lot of work still to do to, in the president-elect’s phrase, “build back better”. Kennedy said that meant “investing in clean, renewable energy that can power communities, not saddling them with false solutions or pollution for decades to come”.
Set against the time-critical nature of the climate crisis and the need for immediate action to curb pollution and switch to renewable energies, the relief bill falls short both in the scale and ambition of its commitments.
“Is this enough to meet the urgency of the moment? The short answer is plainly no – the package is smaller than we’ve called for and certainly smaller than the science demands,” Ricketts said.
But contained in the bill are a number of provisions that represent a clear advance in the US stance on the climate crisis, at the end of four years of Trump administration attacks on environmental protections.
By the far the most significant of those advances is the commitment to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, which are widely used as coolants in air conditioners, fridges and cars.
Under the terms of the relief bill, most HFC use would end by 2035. The overall global impact of such a firm gesture by the US could lead to 0.5C of avoided warming this century.
Ricketts said that the move was not only important in its own right in the climate fight, but it also made a statement that the US was prepared to work with world partners. That was all the more poignant coming just a month after Trump took the US formally out of the Paris climate agreement.
“This is a timely way of showing that we can still play on the international stage and meet our commitments,” he said.
Among other measures in the bill that have received praise from environmental groups are extensions to tax credits for renewable energy technologies. Offshore wind could enjoy a particular boost with the incentives lasting five years.
“This is an industry that is just starting to drive down the runway for take-off in the US,” Ricketts said. “There’s an enormous potential, especially in the north-east, and the five-year tax incentive is critical.”
A further area of significant reform is the pot of $35bn provided for research and development in a range of innovations designed to confront the climate crisis. They include the creation of more efficient batteries, carbon capture, and advanced nuclear reactor technology.
Katherine Egland, environment and climate justice chair for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) national board of directors, said that for African American and other low-income communities the relief bill would impact lives. She lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and this year has experienced firsthand the confluence of the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis and racial injustice.
“We have been confronted by a syndemic in 2020,” she told the Guardian. “We have had to cope with the disproportionate impacts of Covid and climate, during an unprecedented storm season and a year rife with racial unrest.”
Egland said congressional action was welcome “after four years of climate denial. It is a positive step in the right direction”.
But she said that the country would need to do much more to meet the scale of the crisis: “There is no vaccine to inoculate us against climate change.”