background image

The US is heading into a climate election

author image

By Kumar Venkat

· 6 min read

Donald Trump recently offered a deal to top oil industry CEOs: If they raised a billion dollars for his campaign and helped return him to the White House, he would scrap the Biden administration’s climate policies and stop new ones. He would increase oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Alaskan Arctic and reverse the new tailpipe emissions rules designed to speed up the transition to electric vehicles. He has also promised a return to the practice of impounding under which the executive branch can refuse to spend already appropriated money on programs the president doesn’t like.

Critical parts of the Inflation Reduction Act and follow-on climate regulations could be at risk of reversal – or simply non-implementation – depending on this year’s election in the second largest greenhouse gas emitting country in the world (and the largest historical emitter).

While the Biden administration has used an “all of government” approach to push climate policy as far as possible, we are still in a precarious place as far as reaching the all-important goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Any disruption to US climate policy in the next four years could not only shut out the narrow path to this target in this country but also make it difficult to influence other countries to stay on their own paths to net zero.

Net zero emissions and 2oC

The average human-induced warming stood at 1.31oC as of 2023, according to the Indicators of Global Climate Change initiative. At this level of warming, we have already seen a sharp increase in billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. A 2oC warming is considered the threshold above which there would be a dramatic escalation of risk to life and property.

If we manage to globally cut emissions at a modest 5% annual rate starting this year, we would only get to a 74% reduction by 2050 while using up all of the remaining carbon budget. In order to stay within 2oC, we would need to reach net zero emissions by permanently removing the remaining annual emissions from the atmosphere at a cost that the world can afford. Nothing like this technology exists today. We are, in fact, still increasing global emissions year to year.

The net zero project is barely at the starting point, and we have just 25 years to get the job done.

How far does the Inflation Reduction Act take us?

The IRA goes directly after the CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion which account for 74% of GHG emissions in the US. It incentivizes clean power generation along with incentives for electrifying transportation, buildings, and industrial energy use. The Environmental Protection Agency projects a 26% reduction in economy-wide CO2 emissions by 2030 (relative to 2021) as a result of the IRA compared to 16% without the IRA. 

This increased rate of reduction roughly matches the 5% annual reduction scenario through 2030 but slows down after that without further policy changes. By 2035, the emissions trajectory based on the just the IRA is no longer on a viable path to net zero by 2050. This just means that additional climate policies must be incorporated into the net zero plan on a regular basis to keep us on track for 2oC. The next election will greatly influence these climate policies as we enter the 2030s.

Regulations will be needed on top of incentives

Transportation is the largest contributor to US national emissions at 28%. While the power, buildings and industrial sectors appear to be on track for significant emission reductions by 2030, transportation shows only a modest improvement compared to a no-IRA scenario. This is because of the long turnover times of the transportation fleet and the relatively mild impact of the IRA incentives for electric vehicles. A small but significant share of vehicles in 2050 will likely still run on fossil fuels.

The only way to minimize the number of fossil-fuel vehicles in 2050 is to ensure that all new vehicles entering the fleet produce zero tailpipe emissions as early as possible. The new fuel economy standards are expected to indirectly push new passenger vehicle sales to 50% electric by the early 2030s, while the EPA’s GHG emissions standards for light and heavy-duty vehicles will directly limit tailpipe emissions.

These regulations are not a one and done but will need to be updated every few years until 100% of all new vehicles are electric by about 2040. The next president could easily reverse these rules or delay their implementation instead of building on them to rapidly electrify the transport sector.

The power sector, which contributes 25% of national emissions, is on track for a 65% reduction in emissions by 2035. But fossil energy will still persist well beyond that. The Energy Department’s annual outlook of the electricity sector projects a 14% share of power generation for natural gas in 2050 when we need to be at net zero emissions. Incentives alone will not get us there.

The EPA recently required all coal power plants and new natural gas powered plants to reduce 90% of their emissions by 2039. These power plants would need to install carbon capture and sequestration by then to remain viable. The Energy Department also finalized a new rule to speed up federal permits for major transmission lines so that new renewable power can get on to the grid more easily. 

Rules and permitting processes like these would be easy targets for a new administration bent on blocking as many climate policies as possible.

This year’s election will be a climate election

As difficult as it has been to get to a national net zero plan, we actually have one now in the US. It is not a single plan articulated in a single document, but a patchwork of evolving legislation and administrative rules that are intended to work together and provide scaffolding for the economy to decarbonize rapidly. Disabling some of the key cogs in this machine can slow it down when in fact we need to be increasingly more aggressive in our pursuit of net zero and 2oC.

Our climate future literally rests in the hands of the next American president. Even though climate does not show up very often in the noise of the election coverage, this year’s election is really a climate election.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Kumar Venkat is the Founder and CEO of Model Paths. He served as the principal climate consultant for Climate Trajectories. In June 2021, he was appointed CTO of Planet FWD where he led the development of a best-in-class carbon accounting solution for the food and agriculture space.

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)