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Biden’s scaled-down spending bill has big upsides for climate fight

The $555 billion proposal for clean energy investments, incentives and tax credits comes days before world leaders meet to discuss climate change.
Image: Phoenix Lake during a drought in Ross, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2021.
Phoenix Lake in Ross, Calif., amid a drought this month. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Many climate activists are applauding the $1.75 trillion spending bill unveiled Thursday by President Joe Biden, a move that experts say will be crucial to staving off the worst effects of global warming and building a more livable future.

Biden’s proposed framework includes $555 billion in clean energy investments, incentives and tax credits that would help the country meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030. If passed, environmental experts said it’s the type of legislation that could create much-needed momentum to slash pollution levels and address the climate crisis in the United States and on the global stage.

The proposal also backs up promises that Biden campaigned on, making climate change a sizable focus of his administration’s biggest spending bill.

“This would be an absolutely historic investment in clean energy and environmental justice — both of which are essential for climate progress,” said Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group based in San Francisco. “A package that makes all those investments at a scale that will be transformative over the next eight years is incredible.”

The new framework comes after prolonged negotiations between the White House and two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, who opposed key parts of Biden’s original “Build Back Better” plan. 

Some environmental advocates had hoped for an even larger climate package.

“The Build Back Better Framework announced by the White House today doesn’t go far enough to address the economic and climate crises facing our generation,” Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of NextGen America, a progressive advocacy nonprofit started by billionaire and former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, said in a news release. “A few moderate Democrats negotiated against the best interest of the American people, forcing the rest of their party to renege on essential promises.”

Biden on Thursday urged Congress to pass the proposal, saying that the investments will “truly transform this nation.” Earlier this year, the Senate passed a nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill with robust bipartisan support, but the House has yet to vote on that measure, citing the need for parallel action on the social safety net portion of Biden’s agenda.

The bill’s timing is crucial as Biden is set to meet with other world leaders in Scotland next week for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where countries are expected to negotiate and set forth targets to reduce emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Stalled negotiations had generated concern among environmentalists around the world that Biden could show up to the conference empty-handed, leaving little incentive for other countries to offer their own aggressive plans to cut carbon emissions.

Sam Ricketts, co-founder and co-director of the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action, said lawmakers should feel increased urgency to pass the revamped Build Back Better act, but added that the proposal itself should benefit Biden by demonstrating to other nations that the U.S. is actively working to achieve its emissions targets.

“This will show the global community that America really is an ally and can be a leader in driving forward global climate efforts,” Ricketts said. “It shows that after four years of President Trump’s outright climate denial, the U.S. government is moving with leadership against this global crisis.”

The proposed climate bill will also give the U.S. stronger footing in Scotland during negotiations with other top emitters, including China.

“The Biden administration will have more leverage to push other countries to make strong commitments,” said Danielle Arostegui, a senior climate analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We can show that we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

The bill would significantly boost investments in renewable energy, including for solar and wind power, and would provide clean energy tax credits and an electric vehicle tax credit that would lower the cost of an electric vehicle by up to $12,500 per middle-class family, according to the White House.

The framework also prioritizes environmental justice by earmarking 40 percent of the overall benefits of investment for disadvantaged communities. The plan would fund the electrification of ports, in addition to electrifying bus and truck fleets, and would provide grants to communities that are disproportionately affected by climate change and economic injustice.

“This marks a new beginning in the fight against injustice in this country, and a long-overdue boost to the communities that have struggled with the toxic legacy of environmental pollution and systemic racism,” officials with the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, a consortium of climate change and environmental justice advocates, said in a statement.

Dan Lashof, U.S. director of the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based research nonprofit group, said the legislation could bring the country significantly closer to meeting its emissions goals, but added that there is still ground to make up.

The White House said the bill will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 billion tons by 2030, but Lashof said a total of 2 billion tons of emissions need to be cut to reach Biden’s target by the end of the decade.

Still, he said these types of investments could spur other developments in the private sector, or at the state and local level, which could make up the difference.

“It’s important to recognize that this is a huge amount of progress,” Lashof said. “This bill together with the infrastructure bill really does lay the foundation for meeting the 2030 target. It’s all moving in the right direction.”

The legislation would create a 300,000-member environmental workforce, known as the Civilian Climate Corps. The program is designed to provide opportunities for people to learn skills and trades as the country transitions to a “greener” economy.

The proposal also includes grants and loans for rural communities to deploy renewable energy technologies and will bolster state and local efforts to electrify buildings, migrate to clean transportation and electric buses and help communities build protections against extreme weather and other climate-fueled disasters.

“When folks hear tax credits, they tend to think of only utilities and wind and solar power, which of course are hugely important,” Dillen said. “But this is a holistic package that accelerates clean energy across every sector of the economy.”