Carbon tax, jobs and China’s emissions: Experts answer your questions about Biden’s climate plan

  • Reid Frazier

President Biden unveiled sweeping climate goals in April, including a goal of getting the economy “carbon neutral” by 2050. He included many programs to help reach that goal in his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. Though many of those climate provisions were omitted by the infrastructure agreement the president and moderates in both parties announced recently, the administration still plans to push for them through the congressional process of reconciliation.

To help answer your questions about Biden’s climate plans, and the climate crisis in general, StateImpact Pennsylvania and The Allegheny Front gathered a panel of experts. 

The panel includes experts on climate science, economics, energy and transportation. You can still submit your questions here. (Editor’s note: Some questions below have been edited for length.)

Why doesn’t the Biden climate plan include a price on carbon?

Submitted

Destenie Nock, assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. She studies energy justice, environmental justice, decision analysis, and the intersection of energy, poverty and climate change.

Destenie Nock, Assistant Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University: “A price on carbon and carbon cash back are not mutually exclusive. In order to provide a carbon cash back or dividend to Americans, the government needs to have a price on carbon so they can collect money from carbon emitting companies. This allows them to redistribute the wealth to low income and racial minorities experiencing higher burden from carbon pollution. Also the Biden team has been pushing a clean electric standard, not a carbon tax. Personally I am in favor of a clean electric standard over a carbon tax because this is in direct line with the goal of decarbonizing the energy sector. A carbon tax can incentivize carbon-intensive industries to retire or adapt their operations, but we may still have large polluters online if the tax is not high enough. Additionally there are concerns about how taxes will impact vulnerable populations if their energy costs rise. Especially if the revenue generated from the carbon tax is not equitably distributed, or does not cover the full extent of cost raises.”

Will Biden’s plan to lower carbon emissions by getting the economy to net zero carbon by 2050 be enough to save endangered and threatened species and their habitats?

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Richard Alley, climate scientist and Evan Pugh University Professor of Geosciences at Penn State. Alley studies polar ice sheets and has participated in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Richard Alley, climate scientist and Evan Pugh University Professor of Geosciences at Penn State: “If we want to preserve large parts of the natural world, we do need to quit changing the climate rapidly. One often-cited scientific study found that continuing rapid CO2 emissions from human fossil-fuel burning and other activities could drive about 1/6 of all species to extinction (Urban, 2015), and a worst-case scenario might involve even more extinctions.  The fossil record of life and climate on Earth confirms these modern studies that human-caused climate change endangers biodiversity. Early studies showed that many extinctions clustered during certain times, and further studies have shown that many of those mass extinctions were driven by changing climate.  Humans could match or exceed almost all the natural climate changes of the past in combined size and speed, with very large impacts on life. 

But, even if we quit changing the climate, species will still be endangered if we poison or shoot too many of them, cut down or plow or pave over too much of their habitat, or otherwise make their lives difficult.  Humans have driven extinctions in many ways, not just climate change, and as we occupy more of the Earth and use more of its resources, we are placing more and more species at risk.  There’s an old Dr. Suess story, I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, in which the lead character was able to handle one trouble, and then another, but chose to leave his home when “…new troubles came, from above and below…”.  If we cause too many troubles for rare species, they may similarly have difficulty coping, and may have nowhere to go to avoid the troubles.”

Links with more information: 

If climate is a global issue, what will the U.S. do to stop increased emissions by China, which is the largest emitter?

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Akshaya Jha, Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University. He studies how different environmental policies work to achieve reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Akshaya Jha, Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University: “There are several steps U.S. policymakers can take to help China curb greenhouse gas emissions. The first step was to re-enter the Paris agreement. Though nonbinding, the Paris agreement can provide the public and political pressure necessary to compel countries to take actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The second action is to incentivize the development of low-cost technologies that can be used to curb greenhouse gas emissions in countries around the world. Examples pertaining to electricity supply include carbon capture technology that can be installed on fossil-fuel power plants and long-term electricity storage that can be used to compensate for fluctuations in wind and solar resources that only produce when the wind is blowing or the sun is out.

“A more extreme measure would be to adjust prices on Chinese imports to reflect an estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions used to produce the good. This “border adjustment” amounts to a tariff on Chinese goods and thus may be politically unpalatable.”

Does the Biden plan give a subsidy to the nuclear industry? And, what role, if any, nuclear power will play in the Biden energy plan?

Jha: “Many see nuclear power as a crucial component of the global shift away from burning fossil fuels.  This is because nuclear power plants emit virtually none of the global or local air pollutants that contribute to climate change or harm human health and productivity.  In addition, nuclear power plants can adjust output up or down in response to changes in production from wind and solar resources that only produce when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.  On the other hand, the cost and risks associated with nuclear accidents as well as storing nuclear waste are hotly debated.

“The American Jobs Plan (AJP) does not list any direct subsidies for output from conventional existing or new nuclear power plants.  However, the AJP does provide $15 billion in “demonstration projects” for new and developing technologies; one of the technologies listed is advanced nuclear.  Indeed, TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates and owned by Berkshire Hathaway, is planning on building a new advanced nuclear plant in Wyoming.

More information: Bill Gates’ next generation nuclear reactor to be built in Wyoming 

Will there be any tax credits, subsidies, or enhancements for installation of residential solar in Pennsylvania other than the 26 percent federal solar investment tax credit?

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Christina Simeone, Ph.D. student in advanced energy systems at the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. She is the former director of policy and external affairs at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the PennFuture Energy Center for Enterprise and the Environment.

Christina Simeone, Ph.D., student in advanced energy systems at the Colorado School of Mines and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory: “No one can predict the future, but the probability of this happening is very low. The potential exception could be if Pennsylvania joins the regional carbon dioxide reduction program – called the regional greenhouse gas initiative (RGGI) – and uses revenues generated to support distributed renewable energy deployment. Regulations to join RGGI are moving forward, as are bills (HB 637, SB 119) in the legislature meant to stop these regulations. If both efforts succeed a gubernatorial veto and legislative veto override could be in play, but on these actions my crystal ball offers no outcome prediction. And remember, even if PA does join RGGI there is no guarantee revenues generated will go towards solar subsidies.

“The state’s natural gas resources attracted a great deal of investment into building new high efficiency gas-fired power plants in Pennsylvania. On one hand, this helped reduce carbon emissions by displacing some older coal and gas plants. On the other hand, gas power is also crowding out zero carbon nuclear and renewables. Some bills (SB 472, HB 1555) in the legislature would support “community solar” enabling renters and apartment dwellers to enjoy solar and permitting electricity companies to develop solar in low-income areas the private sector won’t serve. Other proposals would update Pennsylvania’s outdated Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard that is no longer growing the market for renewables. These policies would help Pennsylvania maintain resource diversity, grow zero carbon capacity, and limit future stranded gas assets. Unfortunately, I’d guess the probability of success for these is also low.”

How will the Biden administration guarantee all fossil fuel industry workers who lose their jobs will get comparably compensated clean energy jobs? What assistance will those workers, and towns that lose industries, receive?

Submitted

Beverly A. Scott, Ph.D., Transportation Expert, CEO, Beverly Scott Associates, LLC and Founder of Introducing Youth to American Infrastructure, Inc. She speaks about investing in smart, next generation infrastructure to advance American competitiveness, sustainable outcomes, and “shared prosperity.”

Beverly A. Scott, Ph.D., Transportation Expert, CEO, Beverly Scott Associates, LLC and Founder of Introducing Youth to American Infrastructure, Inc.: I grew up in the old Rust Belt – so, I lived seeing my family and neighbors experience the loss of US manufacturing.  

“From my vantage point, this is clearly an Administration that “gets it” when it comes to thinking about the needs of workers, their families and communities in an energy transition. 

It is still much too early in the Biden Administration to expect a fully baked “Just Transition” Program.

“In his first week in office, President Biden signed an Executive Order establishing an Interagency Working Group focused on the economic needs of coal, gas, and oil communities. On the infrastructure investment end, the proposed “American Jobs Plan” includes significant “starter” funding for creating jobs in hard-hit communities, supporting dislocated workers, advancing affordable broadband, and a variety of other initiatives; he restored the USDOT local hire initiative; pushed out more funding in State and local aid, among other related initiatives. 

So, my quick answers to these questions are: there are no absolute guarantees but definitely count on this Administration to be sensitive and responsive to mitigating job losses.  It is, however, likely some workers may be required to move, or find it advantageous to do so; under Biden’s plans, workers and their families who must be uprooted will be provided assistance; as will towns that lose these industries – though how much and how long remains to be determined.  But I believe this Administration understands at a deep and personal level what is needed to provide workers a “hand up” and not a “hand-out.”

“We have examples of how to do this – and, I have dropped a couple of links here that will hopefully be helpful. My personal familiarity is with the extensive work of Pacific Gas & Electric in decommissioning its Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP) in the San Luis Obispo (Calif.) area – working with IBEW and its diverse constituencies to create a strong workforce and community transition plan.”

Could work in the area of native plant production, invasive plant removal and habitat restoration provide jobs in our cities, towns and rural spaces and address an environmental problem?

Scott: You are so absolutely “spot on.” Again, you are going to see my California Bay area coming out. As you know, we have sadly experienced the impact of climate change over the past several years – with whole communities literally ravaged by the combination of severe drought conditions and devastating fires. So, I honestly know a lot more about forestry and natural resources management than likely would normally have been the case. It is truly another relatively “hidden” and underappreciated area that should very much be a part of our toolkit for addressing environmental and economic challenges in communities of all sizes and geographies.

 “For your readers, I am going to drop some links for a few of the organizations that are really tops in this area – including, considerably greater interest in environmental justice, diversity and inclusion in recent years.  The Society of American Foresters (SAF) and their Project Learning Tree.  They also accredit urban forestry programs at a handful of academic institutions.

“Another serious “go to” that I recommend in this area is the National Wildlife Federation which includes the Conservation Corps that offers a number of priorities for putting people to work, advancing equity, restoring public lands, addressing habitat recovery and recovering wildlife populations.  Again, areas often overlooked and undervalued in the bigger infrastructure recovery and investment discussions.

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