In the Face of the Climate Crisis: Biden’s Key Appointment and Proposed Transportation Policy 

By November 25, 2020 No Comments

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

A 2019 United Nations Environment Program report found that for the earth to stay within the 1.5o C threshold, all greenhouse gas emissions must decline by fifty-five percent by 2030 and reach “net zero” around mid-century. Achieve that urgent goal requires an average global emission reduction of more than seven percent annually. It is a steep cut needed because we have failed to act much earlier. During the last decade, annual global emissions have increased by 1.5 percent annually. We must stop the increase and cut CO2 emissions dramatically to avoid triggering more emissions from the earth’s carbon stores.

President-elect Biden understands the urgency and has pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord on his first day taking office in January. His first climate action is linked to his appointment of former Secretary of State and former senator John Kerry as a special envoy. As Secretary of State, John Kerry was instrumental in negotiating the Paris Climate Accord, so he is an excellent choice for a special presidential envoy for the climate. I worked with Senator Kerry for several years during our failed attempts to pass climate legislation. I know John Kerry understands the climate risks we face. I cannot think of a more qualified leader to take on the planetary crisis as a special envoy.

In making the Kerry appointment, President-elect Biden commented, “I’ve asked him to return to government to get America back on track to address one of the most urgent national security threats we face—the climate crisis. This role is the first of its kind: the first cabinet-level climate position, and for the first time, climate change has had a seat at the table on the National Security Council. There could be no one better suited to meet this moment.”

In response to the announcement, Kerry tweeted. “America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is. I’m proud to partner with the President-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis as the President’s Climate Envoy.” We should be hopeful about this vital appointment. 

President-elect Biden has also recognized the importance of the U.S. transportation sector in restarting efforts to control climate pollution. Cars, trucks, planes, trains, and boats are collectively the largest source of CO2 in the U.S. now. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, transportation has taken first place since 2017. All transportation sources combined currently emit 1.9 billion tons of CO2 annually. At the same time, Trump dismantled the fuel efficiency standards that would have cut auto and other light vehicle emissions in half by 2025. 

President-Elect Biden has an opportunity to jumpstart the auto industry’s electrification, create manufacturing jobs, and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. Biden advisors authored a Report entitled “Clean Energy for Biden: Building Back Better.” They are suggesting five policy ideas to address the light-duty sector:

Improve the personal income tax credit for electric vehicles;

Establish a 50% Zero Emissions Vehicle requirement for federal light duty vehicle procurements;

Create a National Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate;

Create a National Clean Miles Standard to reduce emissions and rapidly electrify fleets, including the federal government and corporate fleets and transportation network companies;

Establish a feebate scheme that incentivizes electrification, improves equity, and rapidly transitions drivers to affordable electric vehicles.

Buried in the middle of the recommendations is the most important one. We must advocate for a national zero Emission vehicle mandate to create a path to full EV adoption by 2030. 

Relying on the internal combustion engine from the beginning, the auto industry has been slow to innovate and failed to adapt to changing external forces like the climate crisis. The industry’s reluctance to change has far too often forced the Federal government and, at times, the state of California to require fuel efficiency changes, air emissions, and safety standards like seat belts and airbags. 

While a carbon tax or carbon fee on fossil fuels levied at the upstream source would help curb emissions from the electric energy sector. A tax will do little for auto emissions since motorists have experienced large swings in gasoline prices with little change in fuel usage. 

Instead of taxing fuel, we should seek a ten-year phaseout of fossil-fuel-powered automobiles. The U.S. should follow Norway and the Netherlands in phasing out all fossil fuel-powered automobiles by 2025. Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum in Norway have done what up to this point has been nearly impossible in the U.S. They reached a far-reaching agreement requiring 100 percent of the cars running on green energy by 2025. As Norway bans the sale of all fossil fuel-based cars, they will continue becoming one of the most ecologically progressive countries on the planet. 

To achieve a legislative initiative like that in the U.S. would require the Democrats to control the Senate ending the self-proclaimed “Grim Reaper.” Mitch McConnell recently boasted that he killed 395 House Bills in the Senate creating a do-nothing Congress. 

It has been nearly thirty years since the environmental community got Congress to enact significant environmental legislation. Various polluting industries have worked together to successfully create an iron wall of dark money influencing politicians. Michael B. Gerrard of the Columbia Law School points out, “Congress has not enacted a major new environmental law since 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the Clean Air Act Amendments and the Oil Pollution Act. He also supported, and the Senate ratified, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.”

As the Biden administration seeks to end carbon pollution, the environmental community might be getting some critically important help from the insurgent clean auto industry. Announcing Zero-Emission Transportation Association (ZETA) as the first industry-backed coalition advocating for electric transportation with a simple mission; 100% of new car sales should be EVs by 2030. 

ZETA is the first industry-backed coalition of its kind. Twenty-eight businesses employing hundreds of thousands of workers across all 50 states launched ZETA, to advocate for national policies that will enable 100% electric vehicle sales throughout the light-, medium-, and heavy-duty sectors by 2030. Founding members include a diverse collection of large and small corporations, including ABB, Albemarle Corporation, Arrival, ChargePoint, ConEdison, Copper Development Association, Inc., Duke Energy, Edison International, Enel X, EVBox, EVgo, Ioneer, Li-Cycle, Lordstown Motors, Lucid Motors, Piedmont Lithium, PG&E Corporation, Proterra, Redwood Materials, Rivian, Siemens, Southern Company, SRP, Tesla, Vistra, Volta, Uber, and WAVE. Achieving ZETA’s goal will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, securing America’s global EV manufacturing leadership while dramatically improving public health and significantly reducing carbon pollution. Specifically, ZETA is calling for several key policies that can put America on the pathway to full EV adoption by 2030 including:

  1. Outcome-driven consumer EV incentives; 
  2. Emissions/performance standards enabling full electrification by 2030;
  3. Federal investments in clean charging infrastructure investments;
  4. Federal policies to encourage job creation through domestic manufacturing.

By enacting ambitious–but realistic–policies to accelerate electrification, ZETA seeks to create hundreds of thousands of additional well-paying jobs. Congress must seize this opportunity or risk ceding this obvious economic growth opportunity to other nations. EV produce no tailpipe emissions and are 67% less carbon-intensive than gas-powered cars over their lifetime. By going EV, its estimated that car owners can save over $700 a year in fuel costs and an additional $330 in annual maintenance costs. Joe Britton, Executive Director of ZETA, acknowledged, “For the first time in a generation, transportation is the leading emitter of U.S. carbon emissions. By embracing EVs, federal policymakers can help drive innovation, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and improve air quality and public health. ZETA’s formation recognizes a pivotal moment for national leadership and reflects the will of the growing clean transportation sector.”

We have little time to avoid catastrophic climate changes. The new decade, starting with the Biden administration, will be critical. After thirty years of Congressional inaction, it is time to enact far-reaching federal laws to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles to help address America’s largest source of climate pollution. The United States must become the leader in establishing a global clean transportation economy, ending a major source of air pollution, and creating hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of American jobs as the zero-emission industries sell American-made vehicles into the enormous world market.

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