t systematic exit from fossil fuels. It needs to find both economic and technical solutions to make a green energy system viable.
But it also needs to win the political argument. While the technological uncertainties and economic obstacles of planning for a net-zero future are universal, America’s distinctive problem is the political question of commitment. Decarbonisation is a longterm business. But there is nothing close to a consensus in US politics on the need for action. As serious as the Biden administration may be about tackling the climate crisis, its power to deliver on this depends on having the votes in Congress, a balance that might shift in the 2022 midterms, or in 2024, or in 2026, and so on. Without broader societal agreement, each US election will be a heartstopping moment of potential derailment.
beginning to apply real pressure to large polluters in Europe. China is following the European lead and introducing its own carbon pricing system.
In the US, carbon pricing was on the agendas of both the Clinton and Obama administrations – in Clinton’s case, through carbon taxation, in Obama’s, through cap and trade. Both had majorities in Congress, but in both cases, when it came to the final agonising battles that accompany every major piece of legislation in the US, the majorities evaporated.
These defeats have scarred the US climate movement. One of the striking absences in the Green New Deal Resolution introduced by Congressional Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey in 2019 is carbon pricing, which has come to be re-
The US is unique among rich countries in having one of its two main parties committed to outright climate denial
In every advanced economy there are economic interests opposed to deep, rapid decarbonisation, including those of businesses, consumers and some labour unions. The US is unique among advanced economies, however, in having one of its two governing parties committed to outright climate denial, and a large part of the public with it. Unless this can be changed, America will remain a fundamentally unreliable partner in the effort to halt global heating.
On one count, at least, the Biden administration’s climate policy has clearly drawn lessons from the failures of the Clinton and Obama presidencies. The policy instrument that most economists agree is essential for comprehensive decarbonisation of the US economy is left off the agenda in 2021: carbon pricing – imposing a cost on emissions sufficient to incentivise polluters to reduce, or eradicate, their carbon footprint.
This omission is one of history’s ironies. At the very beginning of global climate politics, in the late 1980s, it was the US’s Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) that persuaded then president George HW Bush to adopt cap and trade – a system for allocating the right to emit through permits, which can be bought and sold – as the most effective way to drive down emissions. The model was reluctantly taken up in Europe in 2005, when, with help from EDF, the EU set up the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Today, rising prices in the ETS are
24 | NEW STATESMAN | 23-29 APRIL 2021
garded as a neoliberal placebo rather than an effective policy. A state-level scheme operates in California but it is deeply unpopular among the Democratic Party left, who view it as a discriminatory and regressive mechanism that gives pollution permits to corporations and the rich.
Experts insist that if the revenue raised by carbon pricing were reallocated to lowerincome households it could be a tool of positive redistribution, but the Biden team despairs of brokering such a complicated deal. The carbon prices necessary to make a real difference would be exorbitant, especially from a standing start. Unlike in Europe, not even petrol is taxed heavily in the US; the last thing the Biden administration needs is
Frank Lloyd Wrong a gilet jaunes-style movement.
But without some kind of carbon pricing scheme, what is the mechanism for driving fossil fuels out of the system? Instead of using prices to incentivise polluters to reduce fossil fuel consumption and to shift supply to cleaner energy sources, the Biden administration’s first actions have centred on regulations and the carbon pricing standards used in internal calculations by government agencies.
This is not new. It was the method used during Obama’s second term after the Supreme Court gave the Environmental Protection Agency the right to oversee carbon emissions. It is fragile, because it is subject to court challenge, but it is a first step towards the Biden administration’s aim of achieving a carbon-free electricity system by 2035.
Clean energy technologies are already maturing fast but, given America’s huge energy consumption, it is a demanding goal. Shifting from gas and coal to variable solar and wind requires a vast amount of extra capacity, as well as a new cross-country transmission system to ensure clean power gets from the states with plenty of wind and sun in the centre of the US, to the coastal conurbations that need it most. The growth in demand will be compounded by the need to shift transport and domestic and industrial heating to electricity, too.
Where will the investment come from? On 31 March the Biden administration gave the answer in the form of the $2trn American Jobs
Plan – the second, after the $1.9trn stimulus, of three major programmes being rolled out by the government. The third will be a family plan aimed at improving the US’s miserably inadequate childcare system.
The Jobs Plan was announced with much fanfare as a three-pronged investment in addressing the ills of American society – from inequality and unemployment to crumbling infrastructure – as well as the challenge posed by China’s autocracy and the climate crisis. Working through dozens of sub-programmes, one has to admire the ingenuity of its construction: covering everything from care for the elderly to laboratory funding at historically black colleges, it is a Rubik’s Cube of intersectionality.
But for all the admirable sophistication of its targeting, there is one outstanding and all-important question: is the investment programme big enough, and will it actually reduce emissions? The $2trn headline sounds impressive. Totting up the various promises made in the initial announcement, one can even arrive at a figure closer to