Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021

You may not have noticed, but the US Congress just passed the biggest climate-related bill in long time, with measures to help save the ozone layer and speed progress on solar, wind and nuclear energy, battery storage and carbon capture. It’s big news, though it’s been overshadowed by the pandemic and resulting economic disaster. Everyone is focused on another portion of the 5593-page Consolidated Appropriations Act: namely, Division M, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

This is important. We’ll get through this pandemic, though the US at least has been doing a bad job so far. Global warming will be a much tougher test of our resolve. So it’s good to see this step toward recognizing its gravity.

• Sarah Kaplan and Dino Grandoni, Stimulus deal includes raft of provisions to fight climate change, Washington Post, 21 December 2020.

In one of the biggest victories for U.S. climate action in a decade, Congress has moved to phase out a class of potent planet-warming chemicals and provide billions of dollars for renewable energy and efforts to suck carbon from the atmosphere as part of the $900 billion coronavirus relief package.

The legislation […] wraps together several bills with bipartisan backing and support from an unusual coalition of environmentalists and industry groups.

It will cut the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemicals used in air conditioners and refrigerators that are hundreds of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. It authorizes a sweeping set of new renewable energy measures, including tax credit extensions and new research and development programs for solar, wind and energy storage; funding for energy efficiency projects; upgrades to the electric grid and a new commitment to research on removing carbon from the atmosphere. And it reauthorizes an Environmental Protection Agency program to curb emissions from diesel engines.

The legislation also includes key language on the “sense of Congress” that the Energy Department must prioritize funding for research to power the United States with 100 percent “clean, renewable, or zero-emission energy sources” — a rare declaration that the nation should be striving toward net-zero carbon emissions.

“This is perhaps the most significant climate legislation Congress has ever passed,” said Grant Carlisle, a senior policy adviser at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The HFC measure, which empowers the EPA to cut the production and use of HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years, is expected to save as much as half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century. Scientists say the world needs to constrain the increase in the average global temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial times to avoid catastrophic, irreversible damage to the planet. Some places around the globe are already experiencing an average temperature rise beyond that threshold.

Advocates say the $35 billion of new funding for renewable technology and energy efficiency in the legislation will also help reduce pollution that is driving global warming and provide a much-needed boost to federal energy programs that haven’t been updated since 2007.

“It doesn’t have regulations or mandates in it,” Sasha Mackler, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said of the energy package. “But from the bottom up it’s advancing the technology that’s needed. … This is definitely a bill that creates the enabling conditions for decarbonization.”

Support among lawmakers for the package suggests that tax incentives and research funding may be a rare area of common ground between two parties that have been divided on climate change.

Despite President Trump’s numerous efforts to roll back climate regulations, leading Republicans backed the package, which has been a top priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for years. Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) helped craft the bipartisan agreement to scale down polluting refrigerants.

“These measures will protect our air while keeping costs down for the American people,” Barrasso, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Monday.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), an ally of President-elect Joe Biden and co-sponsor of the HFC provision, called it “a watershed moment” that bodes well for lawmakers interested in working with the incoming administration on climate change.

“The debate on whether climate change is real is over. It is real. It’s not getting better,” Carper said in a recent interview. “Our Republican colleagues, they get it, for the most part.”

The agreement comes on the heels of a major United Nations climate report, which found that nations’ current plans to reduce greenhouse gasses are just one-fifth of what’s needed to avoid catastrophic warming.

If leaders invest heavily in green infrastructure and renewable energy as part of coronavirus stimulus spending, the world could trim as much as 25 percent from its expected 2030 emissions, the U.N. report said.

Democrats and environmental groups say the legislation is not quite the sweeping “green stimulus” that’s needed. Though it meets Biden’s call to extend tax incentives for solar and wind generation and provide more money for clean energy research, it falls short of his requests for aggressive subsidies for electric vehicles and new requirements that utilities eliminate their contributions to global warming by 2035.

It also excludes a provision from earlier versions of the bill that would have set voluntary standards for energy efficiency in buildings — something that could significantly curb emissions from cities.

“Let’s be clear: Are these provisions enough to meet the demands of the science? No,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y). “But are they a significant step in the right direction? Yes.”

The HFC rule lays the groundwork for the United States to sign onto the Kigali Amendment, an international agreement in which more than 100 nations committed to replacing the chemicals with refrigerants that have a smaller climate impact. Signed in the final days of the Obama administration, the treaty was never submitted by Trump for ratification by the Senate. By voting to curb the climate pollutant now, Congress has eased the path for approval once Biden takes office.

Included in the energy package are roughly $4 billion for solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal research and development; $1.7 billion to help low-income families install renewable energy sources in their homes; $2.6 billion for the Energy Department’s sustainable transportation program; and $500 million for research on reducing industrial emissions.

It also authorizes $2.9 billion for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a program that funds high-risk, high-reward research and that Trump has sought to eliminate multiple times.

The increased funding is expected to make emerging clean-energy technology cheaper and more widespread. This is especially significant for ideas that have proved effective but are struggling to make the jump to commercial viability.

“This is an opportunity to not only make significant advances in climate action and reducing HFCs, but to help maintain leadership of U.S. technology and our competitiveness in that global market,” said Marty Durbin, an energy lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest corporate lobbying group in Washington.

In a boon for renewable energy companies, Congress extended tax credits for wind and solar and introduced a new credit for offshore wind projects, which Heather Zichal, chief executive of the American Clean Power Association, called “America’s largest untapped clean energy source.” One Department of Energy analysis suggested that developing just 4 percent of the total U.S. offshore wind capacity could power some 25 million homes and reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by almost 2 percent.

But many green groups were critical of provisions dedicating more than $6 billion to efforts to remove carbon from the air and store it, as well as funding for enhanced oil recovery projects, which reuse carbon dioxide to flush residual oil from existing wells.

“It just perpetuates the fossil fuel system,” said Jean Su, an attorney and director of the energy justice program at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If you pass something like this, you’re not doing the best we can do in terms of transforming our energy system.”

Others see carbon capture as a necessary tool for mitigating emissions from sources that aren’t easily decarbonized, such as air travel. The bill directs the energy secretary to estimate “the magnitude of excess carbon dioxide” that needs to be removed from the air to stabilize the climate.

The legislation includes more than $11 billion for nuclear energy [….]

9 Responses to Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021

  1. Supernaut says:

    This is relatively good news, especially the part about phasing out HFCs. CFCs have been phased out years ago due to the Montreal Protocol right? I didn’t see anything in the bill about nuclear energy, at least not in the part you quoted, unless we interpret ‘…zero-emission energy sources…’ as being about nuclear. If we’re really serious about global warming, the highest priority should be to maintain existing nuclear power plants (NPPs) operating, yet we are shutting them down and replacing them with natural gas plants…this is not being serious about the issue. In the meantime, China and Russia are technology leaders in this field and building NPPs all over the world – now that certainly will have a positive effect for the climate, and yet the US (the pioneers in this field) are hopelessly falling behind in this key technology, mostly due to the flawed ideology and lobbying of the big green groups.

    • John Baez says:

      I looked around, and it seems chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were dealt with later: they were covered by the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which came into force in 2019.

      However, Trump did not sign on to the Kigali Amendment, even though Republicans in Congress supported it:

      • Phil McKenna, What’s keeping Trump from ratifying a climate treaty even Republicans support?, Inside Climate News, 12 February 2019.

      Of course the question almost answers itself.

      So, maybe the new bill does something similar to what signing the Kigali Accord would do. I’m not sure.

      According to the Washington Post article, nuclear power is getting $11 billion in funding from the new bill. GreenTech Media writes:

      Nuclear power will receive $6.6 billion for modernizing nuclear power plants and develop advanced reactor designs, and $4.7 billion will be used to fund basic and applied research into nuclear fusion.

      • Supernaut says:

        11 billion, not pocket change; and there’s even money for fusion R&D. Thanks for the update, this is good.

      • Keith Harbaugh says:

        Maybe I’m misreading things, but “Science Magazine” seems to have a different take on funding for fusion research.

        Massive 2021 U.S. spending bill leaves research advocates hoping for more, Science, 22 December 2020.

        “Fusion energy sciences and high-energy physics get only $1 million more than they received this year, some $671 million and $1.046 billion, respectively…”

        I’m not sure how to reconcile that with the more rosy-eyed figures. If that $4.7G is spread over 5 years, we have $4.7G/5yrs ~ $940M/year. Different budget items?

        • Keith Harbaugh says:

          Some useful background on the travails of the U.S. effort to make fusion energy generation possible, especially the travails of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, is here:

          Glaring is the paucity of government support for this exceedingly worthwhile endeavor.
          Especially as compared to its funding for NIH.

        • John Baez says:

          Thanks, I’ll read that!

          Where are all the lobbyists pushing for research in fusion? Alas, older people are more likely to vote, at least in the US, and they have lots of practical reasons for caring about cancer, heart disease etc… and fewer reasons to care about long-term health of the planet, and projects like nuclear fusion. Environmentalists are pretty good at lobbying, but most of them haven’t accepted the importance of nuclear power either.

        • Lumping fusion in with nuclear power might be part of the problem. Many non-physicists don’t understand the differences between fission and fusion in general, and the environmental impact in particular. There have been several major catastrophes with fission. As long as the fusion advocates continue to advocate fission as well, it is no wonder that the message doesn’t get through.

      • John Baez says:

        I don’t know how to reconcile the figures. I guess I trust Science more than GreenTech Media for these numbers, but it’s also possible GreenTech was talking about an earlier draft of the bill, or maybe there’s a difference between “basic and applied research into nuclear fusion” and “fusion energy sciences”, or maybe they just counted different items as fitting into these categories. Someone should figure it out!

        • Keith Harbaugh says:

          Two possibilities:
          1. The govt has separate accounts for
          “Supporting scientific research” and
          “Fighting climate change/global warming”.
          2. Funding for next year is flat, but then it increases dramatically.

          The flat/jump scenario seems implausible to me.
          The other scenario is possible.

          I agree, this needs clarification.

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