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Congress must not squander this chance to fight climate change

by Madeleine Para
| May 25, 2022 1:00 AM

When President Biden proclaimed last year that the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by the end of the decade, confidence was high that legislation to achieve that goal would be enacted by the end of 2021. That didn’t happen, and time is now running short to pass a package of measures to speed the transition to clean energy and bring down the heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change.

Hitting the president’s goal would keep the U.S. on track to zero out emissions by 2050. If the rest of the world can reach similar targets, humanity stands a chance of containing global warming to 1.5 Celsius. Keeping under that threshold, scientists say, will allow us to manage and adapt to the changes in our climate that are happening.

Already, climate change is testing the limits human beings can withstand. A recent heat wave in India and Pakistan claimed dozens of lives and also caused the shocking sight of birds falling out of the sky from dehydration. In Texas, a record-shattering heat wave pushed temperatures to 116 degrees, and in New Mexico, high temperatures, wind and dry conditions have kicked off an early wildfire season.

To preserve a livable world, emissions must come down to net zero by mid-century. To do so, we must drastically curtail — and eventually phase out — the burning of coal, oil and gas.

Making this transition requires policies and big investments at the national level. With the great momentum in this Congress to enact such legislation, we can't let this moment pass without getting major policy across the finish line.

Last fall, the U.S. House passed the Build Back Better Act, which contained $555 billion in spending over a 10-year period to facilitate lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Over in the Senate, serious consideration was given to including a price on carbon as the upper chamber’s version of Build Back Better was coming together. Since then, support for carbon pricing has continued to grow, with endorsements from the American Petroleum Institute and the Business Roundtable. A study from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget found that adding a modest carbon fee to the Build Back Better provisions would dramatically improve the chances of meeting the 50% reductions by 2030 goal.

Unfortunately, Build Back Better, which was on track to pass through budget reconciliation in the Senate, was shelved over objections from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Manchin, however, has indicated a willingness to negotiate a reconciliation bill that contains climate provisions. He has also opened up bipartisan talks on climate and energy aimed at getting a bill passed through regular order.

But the clock is ticking down on the time remaining to pass effective climate legislation, with most observers saying a bill must happen before the August congressional recess. At a minimum, Congress must enact the clean energy incentives contained in the House-passed Build Back Better Act.

Better still would be to include a carbon-pricing mechanism that provides a market-based incentive to bring clean energy technologies to scale at a rapid pace. This tool should appeal to deficit hawks who worry about inflation, as it requires no federal funding and would actually raise revenue to fund other climate provisions.

Done properly, a carbon-pricing policy with a “carbon cashback” provision would put money into the pockets of low- and middle-income Americans at a time when higher energy costs are squeezing household budgets.

With a price on carbon, the United States could also impose a carbon border adjustment, a tax on certain imports from nations that aren’t doing their fair share to reduce carbon emissions. This would maintain a level playing field for American businesses and motivate other countries to increase their climate ambition. Europe plans to impose such a border adjustment, and unless the U.S. prices carbon, American firms will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Now is the time for bold action on climate change. Congress must come through with legislation that backs up President Biden’s pledge to reduce U.S. emissions and restore America’s leadership in the challenge to preserve a livable world.

Madeleine Para is executive director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan organization working to enact climate solutions.

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