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Biden can’t fix climate alone. Here’s what it will take.

Any improvements in US climate policy that we see over the next four years will require a great deal of collaboration, for the road to progress is riddled with pitfalls. Here are a few.

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Climate activists are certainly relieved now that the Biden administration has been officially sworn in, replacing a president who openly favored fossil fuels and mocked sustainability. Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, and restricting extraction of fossil fuels on federal preserves and monuments, as Biden did on his first day in office, are meaningful steps. But the obstacles to increasing green energy use and decarbonizing the economy in the US are many and varied. Biden can’t accomplish as much on his own as one might think. 

For a corollary, some might say President Trump didn’t follow through on his promise to bring back coal jobs. President Trump did all that he could to aid the coal industry, but a president’s powers are limited. Market forces can overwhelm executive actions, and often take legislation, not executive orders, to be impacted. Any improvements in US climate policy that we see over the next four years will require a great deal of collaboration, for the road to progress is riddled with pitfalls. Here are a few. 

Banning fracking could boost coal

During the campaign, Republicans insisted that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to ban fracking, which Biden has denied, favoring “gradually” moving away from the practice. The most liberal members of the Democratic Party, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, very much wish Biden would commit to ban fracking. What gets lost here is that, in the absence of fracking, green energy is not the next most-affordable option. As the market is currently structured, coal would likely make a resurgence if fracking is banned.

What gets lost here is that, in the absence of fracking, green energy is not the next most-affordable option.

Green energy relies on tax breaks that are currently renewed on a short-term basis. In order for solar and wind to become dominant market forces, those tax breaks need to be something developers can rely on in the long term. Think about it — building a solar farm is a 20-year investment. If the tax breaks may expire every two years, it’s a pretty risky proposition. Only Congress can change this, and the tax breaks would have to be both long-lived and substantial to tip the market away from coal.

Environmentalists clash

The monolithic environmentalist left is a myth. Environmentalism looks different for different people and groups, and sometimes their visions come into conflict. For example, solar and wind projects don’t generate emissions, but they do use land. Some environmental groups have taken issue with that land use, but haven’t provided meaningful alternatives for siting these projects. The locations of these projects are important. Unlike oil or gas that can be shipped around the country, green energy needs to be generated near where it will be used. This is a problem in places like New England because environmentalists also want to preserve the limited and shrinking amount of undeveloped land in these areas. This leads to NIMBYism where residents want green energy, but don’t want to allocate land to it.

Environmentalism looks different for different people and groups, and sometimes their visions come into conflict.

A lack of agreement about environmental priorities, even among those who champion the environment, is partially why, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and presidency early in the Obama administration, we didn’t see the type of sweeping climate legislation one might expect. Though the Democrats now control Congress and the White House again, there are few signs that passing climate legislation will be easy. 

Local agencies can hinder progress

Even if new federal legislation is enacted, local and state agencies will still have to cooperate and approve green energy projects. There’s a lot of room for inefficiency to derail the process. A desire for perfection can sometimes blind regulators to the best realistic option. Agencies in some locations (including some in blue states) can be flummoxed by projects that don’t quite fit their established processes and understandably conservative when approaching new ideas. The number of government officials working from home during COVID-19 has only made communication less efficient for everyone, and we’re sure to see a backlog lasting long after the masks come off. 

The path forward for green energy is daunting for Biden and the US, but there is hope. If political spin is removed from the equation, proliferation of green energy makes fiscal sense. Green energy is proven to create real, high-wage jobs and drive economic growth. It’s not just good for the environment, it’s good for the economy as well.

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