Governments and Industry Must Partner to Wrangle Rising Temps, White House Urges

“It’s the economy, stupid!” To control runaway global temperatures, President Joe Biden told world leaders at the final day of the White House climate summit that a major greening of the U.S. economy is the only way through.

In this screenshot from a livestream, President Joe Biden speaks Friday during the final day of the White House climate talks, where he stressed that there is “incredible opportunity” to revitalize the U.S. economy and turn it toward a fully renewable future. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — One day after President Joe Biden announced America’s goal to cleave carbon emissions in half by 2030, a bevy of his administration’s envoys joined him Friday in the final day of the White House climate summit to lay out their ambitious plan for achieving that mission.

“When the winds of change blow, some build walls. Others build windmills,” Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said, updating the old proverb. “Climate disasters worldwide tell us the scariest thing we can do is nothing at all.”  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations have both warned that Earth’s average temperature can rise no more than the 1.5 degrees Celsius before the globe shifts to an irreversibly hotter, wetter climate that cannot sustain the fragile ecosystems teetering in the natural world.

Biden officials say the fundamental shift in the way America conducts itself, from industry to trade to foreign policy and technology, can be kickstarted by altering how the United States looks at the $2.3 trillion — and growing — market for clean energy.

In the weeks ahead, the Department of Energy will announce new goals for next-generation energy projects starting with hydrogen and carbon capture as well as industrial fuel and energy storage. The department will tap all 17 of its national labs to get the initiative underway.

Granholm said the department has set a goal of reducing the price of solar by 50% by 2030, and the U.S. will lower the cost of clean hydrogen technology by 80% by 2030 to make it competitive with natural gas. The department too will evaluate its role in making electric vehicles more affordable and one day, cheaper than gasoline-run cars.

“This is our generation’s moonshot. Less than a decade ago President Kennedy declared our nation’s choice to go to the moon. We planted an American flag on that cratered surface and today we choose to solve the climate crisis. Imagine what we can do and imagine if the entire world participated,” Granholm said. “For too long the climate conversation is viewed as a zero-sum game. No longer. Going big on our ambitions means we’re going to create jobs for millions, construction workers, project managers, engineers, technicians. That means we can all do right by our people as we do right by the planet. We can lift up communities that have been knocked down and make good on moral debts owed to those bearing the burden of fossil fuel pollution.”

Before the two-day summit opened on Thursday, the White House released a report from its Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities, which flagged up to $38 billion in existing federal funding that could go toward revitalizing 25 regions where coal-related industries have been hardest hit.

Coal miners and other labors in related fields would get a boost under the program and be put to work remediating abandoned mines, orphaned oil and gas wells, and restoring brown fields — lands that are not developed but may be contaminated from industrial use. Small-business and grant funding for labor training is also possible with the investment of available funds, the report underlines.

To get there, the working group recommends that the White House and federal agencies agree to launch a series of town halls with administration officials in coal communities within three months. A year from now, with collaboration between federal and state forces, an office specifically for coal communities seeking access to federal resources and agencies would be stood up by the federal government.

“We all are tired of the old view that we have to make a tradeoff between jobs and the environment,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said during Friday’s summit. “Raising innovation ambition will be what makes it possible to raise the world’s climate ambition.”

Raimondo also noted that in 2020, global investments in clean technology crossed the $500 billion mark. But the new clean technology economy has trillions more at stake.

“The government cannot do it alone. We need the private sector. We need entrepreneurialism and academic research and development institutions to play a huge role in uncovering and developing new technology,” she said.

Danielle Merfield, the chief technology officer for GE’s renewable energy division was on hand Friday to announce that, in addition to the $1.5 billion invested annually in GE’s energy research and development, they would collaborate with the Energy Department’s network of national labs. GE will also invest $100 million in engineering scholarships for students of color.

Friday’s rhetoric marked a significant shift from the last four years at the White House where former President Donald Trump and cabinet members regularly derided renewables as impractical, favoring instead to double down on drilling and mining.

Moving from words to solutions is another step.

“Right now the data does not match the rhetoric, and the gap is getting wider and wider,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, an autonomous intergovernmental organization. “We are not recovering from Covid in a sustainable way, and we remain on a path of dangerous levels of global warming. Our latest estimates for global emissions in 2021, this year, are a warning for humanity.”

Birol called it insufficient to retool standards or even to drastically cut emissions from trucks, ships and planes.

“We will need to do the same for steel and cement factories, chemical plants and in farming. We have today many technologies at our disposal: energy efficiency, solar, electric cars, nuclear power — and we need to deploy this as quick as possible,” he added.

Analysis from Birol’s group shows that half of the reductions needed to get the U.S. to net zero emissions by 2050 must come from technology not yet ready for market. That means there must “massive leaps” made with investment into battery storage, synthetic fuels and carbon capture, he said.

On May 18, the IEA will publish a roadmap for the global energy sector on how to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“Make no mistake, this is a herculean task,” Birol said.

Friday’s summit also featured an apparent endorsement of the Biden administration’s energy and infrastructure plan from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

“To provide all the benefits of a modern lifestyle around the world, we need new zero-carbon products that are just as affordable but have a ‘green premium’ of zero,” Gates said. “It will be hard to create those products but we can do it if we invest in innovation and build the infrastructure for the transition to a clean economy.

In Congress, one of the biggest divisions between Democrats and Republicans when discussing climate change is how to innovate. While both sides often want new technology created to help solve complicated energy issues, there is often fierce disagreement on how to get there and how much involvement the federal government should have.

The U.S. Transportation Department is getting on board. On Thursday, the department proposed withdrawing a Trump-era rule that stopped states like California and others from setting their own emissions standards for vehicles.

“These challenges and opportunities will be met by working people in every nation,” Biden said, teleconferencing into the summit from the East Room of the White House. “Workers who thrived in yesterday’s industries have as bright a tomorrow in new industries. When we invest in climate resilience and infrastructure, we create opportunities for everyone. That’s at the heart of our jobs plan here in the U.S. It’s how our nation will build an economy that gives everybody a fair shot.”

Biden’s infrastructure and jobs plan, despite its outlines to revitalize blue collar markets, expand vocational training and shore up the flagging coal industry towards renewables, is facing a bitter fight on Capitol Hill.

Senate Republicans only a day ago countered the administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal with a far smaller offer of $568 billion. The low-ball offer, one Republican aide said, was intended to bring Biden’s proposal closer to earth.

While the Republican plan features twice as much for roads and bridges as Biden’s plan — they floated $299 billion — there is nothing for things the White House says are intimately part of America’s infrastructure, including care for older or disabled people.

Bringing that kind of diversity and representation has been a plank of the Biden administration’s first 100 days, and it continued as the climate summit unfolded. On Friday morning, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff announced that 16 new listings would be added to the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. There are nearly 700 underground railroad sites throughout the U.S.

“This program helps us all more fully understand the experiences of slaves who built our country, sought freedom for themselves and their descendants,” Haaland said.

Back at the summit, White House climate envoy John Kerry cast an eye to Glasgow where nations convene in November for the 26th annual United Nations climate conference.

“Glasgow is the last best hope we have to galvanize the world in this direction and get the job done,” Kerry said. “We hope what this summit has done is show that this is a plus. This is an economic bonanza and an opportunity to have the greatest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution.”

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