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U.S. cannot fulfill climate change pledges if Manchin won't vote for clean energy, experts say

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If Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., will not vote for a budget reconciliation bill that includes the measures to reduce climate change in the version passed by the House of Representatives last year — as the Washington Post reported Thursday night that he would not — it virtually guarantees that the United States will fail to meet its international commitments to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, experts say.

As part of his efforts to galvanize a strong global agreement to avert catastrophic climate change by staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, President Biden pledged that the U.S. would reduce by at least half its emissions from a 2005 baseline by 2030. Due to the energy sector’s reduction in coal use, the nation is already almost halfway to that goal, with emissions having dropped by about one-fifth since 2005. But getting the rest of the way there is impossible without legislation that hastens the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, according to modeling by economists, scientists and policy wonks.

 Joe Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin with Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, both of West Virginia. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

“This appears to be the final installment in the collapse of Democratic hopes for a major legislative package on climate for the 117th Congress,” Barry Rabe, a professor of environmental policy and public policy at the University of Michigan, told Yahoo News in an email about Manchin’s reported stance. “Despite bold initial promises, Congress has once again failed to deliver on a climate bill. This clearly imperils any prospects to honor President Biden’s emission reduction pledge and further challenges American credibility in global climate deliberations.”

On Thursday, the Rhodium Group, a research and data analytics firm specializing in energy and the environment, issued a study showing that the U.S. is on pace to reduce emissions 24% to 35% below 2005 levels by 2030. Absent significant new policies, in other words, the best-case scenario is that the U.S. gets 70% of the way towards Biden’s goal of cutting emissions in half, and it is just as likely to get halfway to the goal.

Manchin had previously signaled support for provisions in the budget bill, formerly known as Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, that would subsidize the deployment of clean energy and electric vehicles. Democrats wanted to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over 10 years on tax credits for purchases such as rooftop solar panels, electric cars and tax credits on incentives for projects such as advanced battery storage and cleaning up industrial processes. Congressional Democrats and Biden had already agreed to drop other climate provisions, such as the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would have provided incentives for electric utilities that switched to clean energy sources such as wind and solar power, at Manchin’s request.

Solar panels
Solar panels on a rooftop in Los Angeles. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

Previous studies by organizations such as the World Resources Institute (WRI), a leading global environmental think tank, had found that the U.S. could meet Biden’s emissions target, just barely, with the package of climate provisions Manchin had indicated he could support, possibly in exchange for approval of more fossil fuel infrastructure projects.

“Failure to enact a climate-smart budget package would be a devastating setback to achieving the United States’ pledge to cut emissions in half by 2030,” said Dan Lashof, director of WRI United States, in a statement on Friday. “Research shows that strong financial investments, like those under consideration in the budget reconciliation package, are essential for the U.S. to achieve that timeline.”

But on Thursday evening the Washington Post reported that Manchin had told Democratic leaders he would not vote for a bill that includes spending on climate change or tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations to pay for it. “Senator Manchin believes it’s time for leaders to put political agendas aside, reevaluate and adjust to the economic realities the country faces to avoid taking steps that add fuel to the inflation fire,” said Manchin’s spokesperson Sam Runyon.

On Friday morning, the West Virginia Democrat told a local radio station in his home state that he is open to backing the climate change policies if inflation eases next month. “I said, ‘Chuck, can we just wait until the inflation figures come out in July ... and then make a decision what we can do and how much we can do?’” Manchin said, referring to a conversation he had with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “[Schumer] took that as a no, I guess, and came out with this big thing last night. And I don’t know why they did that. I guess to try to put pressure on me, but they’ve been doing that for over a year now. It doesn’t make any sense at all. As far as I’m concerned, I want climate, I want an energy policy.”

Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images)

If Manchin doesn’t provide his crucial vote, however, and Republicans gain control of at least one chamber of Congress in November’s midterm elections, there is no hope for legislation to address climate change. And without legislation, the federal government has limited tools at its disposal to reduce emissions. Only Congress can tax and spend. And contrary to Manchin’s reasoning about inflation, a 2021 study by the Rhodium Group found that American households would save an average of about $500 per year on energy bills if the climate package were passed.

“We need to make it more affordable for everyday Americans to get off of fossil fuels,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist who specializes in environmental policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Yahoo News. “Fossil fuels are expensive, they are driving inflation. The bill would have been really great for everyday Americans’ pocketbooks. It would have helped them close the gaps, so that they could afford an electric vehicle, so that they could afford an electric heat pump. There were all these investments that were going to make it easier for utilities to build wind and solar, that were going to make it easier to retire dirty, expensive fossil fuel plants. It really was about helping to invest in climate solutions, so that we can move at a faster pace.”

Using executive authority under existing laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency can require stronger pollution controls and the Department of Interior can restrict fossil fuel development on federal land, but those moves — assuming they survive the inevitable legal challenges from the fossil fuel industry — will only reduce emissions at the margins.

Joe Biden
President Biden speaking in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“One of the tragedies of the past 18 months is that the Biden administration has been wary of upsetting these delicate negotiations with Senator Manchin and so they have held back on using the full force of their executive authority,” Stokes said. “That’s not the case going forward, the Biden administration will be acting. It will be much more aggressive on everything from Clean Air Act regulations to limiting fossil fuel development. There’s no reason to delay anymore. So we could be in a slightly better place, if and when the Biden administration kicks into high gear on climate change.

“But getting to the goal is difficult,” she added. “And there is modeling that has estimated what does it mean if the Biden administration uses all the regulations it can and it tends to be, it gets us like five percentage points closer to the goal. So if we’re at 35%, it gets us to 40%, optimistically.”

“We are not currently on track to meeting our international climate commitments or our environmental justice commitments,” Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, a climate advocacy group, told Yahoo News. “A major investment was necessary over the next decade to supercharge our transition to clean energy and bring down the cost of wind and solar and ramp up renewable energy production. Without that major investment, it’s hard to see how we meet our commitments.”

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