The critics are howling. President Biden’s pledge to cut climate warming emissions has too many economic hurdles, they cry. It just can’t be done!

During the Leaders Summit on Climate, Biden formally pledged that the US would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52% relative to 2005 levels by 2030 — the most ambitious target the US has set to date.

But think about it, the naysayers carp. Too many vulnerabilities exist in the nation’s electricity system. Tensions are mounting in the automotive sector. Increased reliance on goods imported from China will further undermine US manufacturing (such as it is). Utility chiefs want a longer timeline and foreshadow rolling blackouts.

Many fossil fuel-loving Republicans worry about the economic hurdles of rising energy prices. “I’m really concerned about the increased cost of electricity and energy if we rush too fast to replace the oil and gas industry,” Representative Debbie Lesko, Republican of Arizona, uttered.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy published a video touting the Energy Innovation Agenda, a package of “dozens of bills and solutions” the GOP has to address climate change and infrastructure as a weak counterpoint to Biden’s agenda.

General Motors says it will sell only zero emissions vehicles by 2035, but it just can’t do 2030 without inundating its workforce. “We’ve been stressing a more cautious approach to electric vehicles,” said Rory Gamble, the president of the United Auto Workers, said in support.

Biden wants Congress to require electric utilities to shift toward lower-emission power sources. “Our analysis says we could get there by 2050,” said Nick Akins, chief executive of American Electric Power, an Ohio-based electric utility, but not 2035.

It’s a mess, they moan — just too many economic hurdles. Why us?

Why us? The decision to take climate action is imperative because catastrophic climate change is an existential threat. But Biden will need to tread cautiously, as plans to reduce emissions will run head on into a likely rapid post-Covid economic rebound and associated rising carbon pollution.

“Make no mistake, this is a herculean task,” Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Association, reiterated, referring to collective global pledges to decrease emissions.

The Other Side Of The Story

With an emphasis on research and development, efficiency improvements in homes and schools, and the electric grid to better support renewable energy, Biden has set out a robust agenda. Even though the media is full of loud voices shouting “ruin” over Biden’s climate plan, others say Biden’s industrial policy can steer the development of jobs and manufacturing.

Electricity demands will necessarily require far more renewables, including continued battery storage development to store power generated by solar panels and wind turbines, as well as a zero emissions transportation sector. In linking climate action to employment, Biden stressed that clean energy progress will involve hiring electricians, construction crews, and traditional energy-sector workers to retrofit buildings and build out the nation’s solar, wind, battery storage, and electric vehicle industries.

As example, the Biden-Harris infrastructure proposal includes $174 billion in spending to build electric vehicle charging stations.

“Other economies are going to move, and the citizens of those countries are going to demand clean energy and products that are not made from dirty energy,” John Kerry, the administration’s global climate change envoy, insists.

Even the United Mine Workers, the major labor group representing coal miners, acknowledged that reality by supporting Biden’s infrastructure package — and a transition to clean energy — in the days leading up to the summit.

Want to avoid the kind of economic damage US workers experienced in the early 2000s when automation and globalization claimed millions of manufacturing jobs? Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers insists that reducing carbon emissions is essential if the US wants to maintain economic currency with China. “As we transition to a clean energy future, we must ensure workers who have thrived in yesterday’s and today’s industries have as bright a tomorrow in the new industries,” Biden said.

Then again, several major companies are excited about the shift to cleantech and renewables.

  • Micron Technology’s CEO Sanjay Mehrotra spoke about the need for memory and storage. “We are definitely excited about the prospects of driving greater leadership in research, technology, and products through the US, as well as on a worldwide basis.”
  • QuantumScape’s CEO Jagdeep Singh said that more focus is needed to address key hurdles that keep electric vehicles from being competitive with traditional combustion engines. These include long-range travel, battery charging times, and lower costs. “It’s great that the administration is so supportive of this electrified transition that is critical to regress emissions.”
  • Craig Knight is CEO of Hyzon Motors, a private hydrogen-fuel cell company which has its focus on the commercial vehicle market, including heavy-duty trucks and buses. Knight argues that hydrogen-powered trucks don’t get enough recognition, especially, he notes, considering that the power source is quite suitable for long-range driving. “Hydrogen trucks are electric trucks. They are fuel cell electric trucks,” he said. “We see great potential for those kind of back-to-base operations with high utilization to move toward hydrogen.”

Final Thoughts: Transcending Disagreements About Economic Hurdles & Climate Action

Democrats argue that the nation needs to not only upgrade outdated infrastructure but to make strategic investments to build the economy of the future with electric-vehicle charging stations, high-speed broadband, child care, upgraded schools, and more money for clean energy research. The spending numbers behind climate change policy — largely contained within the infrastructure plan — divides the Biden administration and congressional Republicans.

Then again, the president has recently included some of the favored language of his opposition in his hallmark middle-of-the-aisle approach to governing.

  • $75 million to support customized engineering designs for carbon capture and storage technology for power and industrial plants
  • modernizing nuclear energy
  • embracing technology to curb emissions

Clearly, if the Biden-Harris infrastructure plan receives Congressional approval, there will emerge a whole slew of new middle-class jobs. US manufacturers and research laboratories will rush to lead the global race to a low-emission future, while adding jobs and raising worker pay. New, innovative industries that support climate action can define the place of the US in the rest of the 21st century.

Photograph by Carolyn Fortuna

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