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“Buy a Decade of Climate Progress”: What Biden’s $2T ‘Build Back Better’ Agenda Means for the U.S.

the U.S.
Published on Jan 18, 2022

Last year, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, signed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law. Surprisingly, the bill had garnered overwhelming approval and was signed into law months after the bill passed the Senate in August. 

What Biden’s $2T 'Build Back Better' Agenda Means for the US

Biden has another bill in sight. Indeed, the bill stipulates an even higher injection—double the infrastructure bill. However, far from overwhelming approval, the bill has actually received overwhelming disapproval. The $2 trillion bill has been uniformly opposed, which has caused negotiations to proceed at a painfully slow pace. 

But Biden and the Democrats have been adamant. They have to. The spending bill, called the Build Back Better plan, could see the US reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. That is the target Biden committed to at COP26, where over 190 countries gathered last year in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss the global climate action. 

Read more: “Net-Zero by 2070”: #COP26 Climate Deal, Here Are the 5 Biggest Talking Points 

So, how will the spending bill help the US fight climate change? And why is it so firmly opposed?  

Infrastructure and building back better 

Compared to the spending bill, the infrastructure bill received far less opposition because it is far less controversial.  

US Infrastructure
The spending bill, called the Build Back Better plan, could see the US reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.

The bill will see the biggest improvements in North America’s infrastructure in a generation. The bill stipulates massive investments in the development of roads, railways, bridges ($110 billion), airports ($25 billion), and high-speed internet infrastructure ($65 billion). Its signing is a triumph. 

However, a bigger triumph would be combining it with the spending bill. In combination, North America’s climate action and resilience could improve phenomenally. As one researcher put it, if signed, the Build Back Better plan could buy the US a “decade of climate progress.” 

Read more: 100% Clean Energy? The US Need Not Look Beyond Solar, Wind, and Hydropower. Here’s Why 

The United States is the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, emitting around 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents every year. It is responsible for about 15% of the globe’s total emissions. While emissions dropped in 2020, owing to several COVID-related lockdowns, they have bounced back, and will continue to rise unless the US changes its ways. 

US strength against China

The biggest obstacle to change is cost. Oil, compared to solar energy, say, is spectacularly cheap. It also has a higher energy density. Most solar panels, for example, only convert 25-30% of the light that falls onto them, into electricity. Yes, nuclear energy has a dramatically higher energy density. However, a nuclear reactor is also dramatically more expensive to build. 

While a government can punish (fine) companies for emitting greenhouse gases, the financial rewards are far more motivating. In other words, if the world wants to change its ways, its governments must reward or incentivize the change. And that is precisely what the Build Back Better bill aims to do. 

Read more: “Double the Emissions Reductions”: Could Carbon Markets Avert the Climate Crisis? 

The bill will see over $550 billion allocated to clean energy and climate research initiatives. It will also grant $320 billion in tax reductions over the next decade for businesses or investors that invest in clean energy programs. Broken down, over $60 billion will be invested in modernizing the railway network, $90 billion in broader public transport, and over $70 billion in clean energy transmission and other infrastructure.  

US Wind Power
“In other words, if the world wants to change its ways, its governments must reward or incentivize it. And that is precisely what the Build Back Better bill aims to do.”

The US government will also increase the subsidy for carbon capture technology, from $50 to $85 per ton of carbon dioxide. That said, while carbon capture is vital to climate action, the technology is still in its infancy. That is why the bill stipulates investing almost twice in energy research and development over the next five years. The budget, which will be a record high, will fund research that will determine the feasibility of innovations like carbon capture and whether they can be scaled. 

Combined with the infrastructure bill, the spending bill should significantly drive down the cost or ‘green premium’ for developing and using clean energy. It will encourage businesses to innovate and disrupt the clean energy landscape. According to models (Princeton University and Energy Innovation), if things go as planned, by 2030, North America’s annual emissions could reduce by 1.3 billion tons. Although, different models produce different outcomes. 

 

What Biden’s $2T 'Build Back Better' Agenda Means for the US

 

Here is the most interesting finding. When a government makes going green the profitable choice, energy consumption rises. However, emissions go down. Electricity generation and transport are responsible for the majority of emissions. As we go green, electric power will actually increase—in agriculture, transport, and manufacturing. 

Read more: Lab-Grown Meat Is the “Clean” Food the World Needs. So, What’s the Beef?  

But because the electric power will be generated cleanly, emissions will not. 

The challenges to Build Back Better 

Even though Build Back Better will take North America’s climate resilience to a whole new level, the bill has been steadfastly opposed for mostly the social changes it stipulates. 

Reality and Humans are Unpredictable

Mostly. The energy sector, dominated by coal and gas, is massive and powerful and employs millions of people. An overhaul could put the livelihood of many at risk. More importantly, making coal and gas the unprofitable choice will make a lot of important people unhappy. 

Change is hard. And change at such a scale is extremely hard. But Biden and the Democrats have assured that the benefits of the change outweigh its cost. The bill will create a slew of new industries and, therefore, jobs. Signed promptly, it could strengthen the US in its competition against China, which is already innovating in clean energy rapidly. 

Read more: 8 Million More: Fighting Climate Change Will Increase Energy Jobs by 50%, Study Finds 

And, of course, not changing or continuing to emit several billions of tons of greenhouses gases every year will lead to more extreme and frequent weather events. Disasters, which scientists now think are separate from hazards, do not just lead to a loss of lives. Disasters also lead to economic loss. In 2021, disasters like wildfires, cyclones, floods, tornadoes, and extreme heat and cold cost the US over $145 billion. 

economic loss
“The energy sector, dominated by coal and gas, is massive and powerful and employs millions of people.”

As for the controversy, Republicans have opposed the bill on the grounds of its staggering cost and the changes it has proposed to child care, adult care, the price of prescription drugs, and healthcare in general. The bill has also proposed changes to the immigration policy. 

However, even if Build Back Better is signed into law, there is no guarantee that it will bring change. Models are, well, just that—models. Reality is unpredictable. Humans are unpredictable. Who knows what misunderstandings will dictate what decisions. Let us not forget bureaucratic delays and unpredictable technical and logistical challenges like supply chain bottlenecks. How about another pandemic? 

Read more: “The Pandemic Has Changed Everything“: 5 Big Predictions for 2022 

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