The United Nations climate conference happening in Glasgow in less than two weeks will essentially chart a course for humanity for generations to come. That’s because this decade is one where the world must start cutting carbon emissions by nearly 8% per year or blow past a key climate guardrail.
The U.S. was slated to be a big player, showing up to the meeting known as COP26 with a major new tool to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. But thanks to a slim Democratic majority in Congress, Sen. Joe Manchin—along with every Republican in the House and Senate—could send the Biden administration with an empty hand. And for that, the whole world could suffer.
Manchin reportedly opposes what is the most surefire avenue to reduce emissions in the reconciliation bill currently stalled in the Senate. (Republicans, of course, oppose everything climate-related.) Known as the Clean Energy Performance Program (known as the CEPP and pronounced with a soft “c” in energy-nerd parlance), it would pay utilities that decarbonize at a rate greater than 4% per year and penalize those that don’t. Currently, very few utilities are meeting that pace. The U.S. average across utilities is just 2.3% per year, according to Princeton energy expert Jesse Jenkins. An analysis by modeling firm Energy Innovation found the CEPP along with tax credits for installing new renewables is the “strongest set of provisions” in the bill and could keep anywhere from 250 to 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
“A key feature of the CEPP is that it provides incentives for increasing clean electricity generation as well as a penalty for utilities that fall short of annual targets,” Megan Mahajan, the manager of energy policy design who co-authored the report, said in an email. “This carrot and stick approach ensures utilities actually achieve the stated targets.”
This matters to achieving President Joe Biden’s goal of decarbonizing the grid by 2035. But more importantly, it’s a lynchpin in setting the U.S. on a course to meet its newly minted Paris Agreement commitment. Biden put the U.S. down to cut carbon emissions 50% below 2005 levels. It also costs a relatively paltry $150 billion, which is just a fifth of the annual Pentagon budget.
Arriving at COP26 with the CEPP in place would show the U.S. is serious about addressing climate change. Without it, the rest of the reconciliation bill—assuming it even passes before the climate talks—is nowhere near enough to get the U.S. on track. Absent the CEPP, the U.S. won’t have a credible negotiating position.
“Frankly, I’m frightened,” Rep. Sean Casten, one of the climate champions in the House who worked in clean energy, said. “Yes, there are other climate pieces in the bill. But there’s nothing in the bill other than the CEPP that binds the U.S. to quantifiable emissions reductions, which is the theme of COPs.”
With the prospect of Democrats losing one or both houses of Congress in the looming midterms, climate policy will be nigh impossible to pass if that happens. The world knows all this, which is what makes a credible, hardwired program to cut emissions so vital to the U.S. staking out a leadership position at the Glasgow climate talks.
“I certainly hope, I would almost say, that sanity will prevail and that the U.S. Congress will take the responsibility that it should,” Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and current head of a group of former world leaders focused on peace and justice called The Elders, said on a press call.
The U.S. walking into COP26 without the CEPP will be like strolling in with an ice cream sundae in hand while telling the world it needs to go on a diet. While there are other mechanisms the Biden administration or states and cities can take to commit to meaningful emissions reductions in line with Biden’s Paris pledge, Mahajan said those lead down “a narrower pathway fraught with more legal risk.” Any rule passed by the Environmental Protection Agency to limit power plant emissions, for example, would take time to craft and almost certainly face legal challenges that would put it in limbo for years. In fact, this exact thing played out during the Obama administration after a climate bill went down in flames. The eventual rule faced Republican legal challenges and, after years of wrangling in court, was repealed by the Trump administration.
A Manchin- and Republican-hobbled U.S. negotiating position opens the door to two possibilities. One, the world continues its rudderless and toothless climate pledge-a-thon. The 2015 Paris Agreement set an admirable goal of limiting warming, but it has no enforcement mechanisms and relies on countries to deliver on their pledges by their own volition. This format was in part due to Congress, which was unlikely to sign off on a binding climate agreement because it was controlled by Republicans at the time. So far, emissions have climbed in the wake of the agreement despite promises of more ambition. Remember, emissions need to fall an unprecedented 76% this decade to have a decent shot at meeting the Paris stretch goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The UN report laying out those cuts also found developed countries like the U.S.—which is the largest historical carbon polluter—have a critical responsibility to make even deeper reductions. If the world fails, many low-lying island nations will be completely consumed by the sea, and millions who rely on subsistence farming could lose their livelihoods or even their lives. Even rich countries will suffer damages, as the recent spate of extreme storms and hellish wildfires more shows.
“You can justify any expense, but $3.5 trillion over 10 years,” Casten said, referring to the whole cost of the reconciliation bill, “is trivial relative to the cost that we’re looking at [of climate damages].”
The other option is that the U.S.’s weak position could allow for another nation to lead. Both Robinson and former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who is Robinson’s deputy at The Elders) repeatedly called on China to come to the table with the U.S.—or on its own. Casten also sees a similar dynamic that could play out, with China having a potential opening to swoop in and set the climate agenda that will define the 21st century.
“The question is really going to be what country is going to lead the international conversation about climate?” he said. “To be in that leadership position, you basically have to have two things. You have to have the economic clout to muscle your way into that role, which we do. And you have to have the proven track record that you are committed to doing at least as much internally as you are demanding the rest of the world does, which we do not. If we don’t get there, what we’re basically doing is opening the door to the Chinese century.”