WASHINGTON – In the final days of the 116th Congress, lawmakers approved $ 35 billion in spending on wind, solar and other clean energy sources, while restricting the use of a powerful chemical in air conditioners and refrigerators to warm the planet.
Both measures, backed by some of the Senate’s most powerful Republicans, were tied to the huge government spending and coronavirus package expected to hit President Trump’s desk earlier this week, creating the first major climate change bill since at least 2009.
They are a rare reprimand from the party to Mr Trump regarding global warming, having ridiculed and systematically pushed back all major rules of climate change for the past four years. The comity could also signal that while President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is unlikely to reach his full climate plan, he may make progress in curbing global warming.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, described the effort to get this body down in a decade as “the greatest single victory in the fight against climate change.”
Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso and a leading opponent of most climate protection measures also celebrated: “This agreement protects both American consumers and American businesses,” he said. “We can have clean air without harming our economy.”
Climate advocates said that the adoption of climate change measures – especially refrigerant limits – could signal to the rest of the world that the United States is ready to re-join global efforts to slow down planet warming. According to an analysis by the research and consultancy firm Rhodium Group, breaking down the refrigerant would be one of the most important federal measures ever taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
By 2035, the bill would help avoid the equivalent of 949 million tons of carbon dioxide, which the group estimates corresponds to the additional expected emissions from Mr Trump’s climate policy rollbacks on vehicle pollution and methane from oil and gas operations.
Mr Biden has pledged to adopt the most ambitious climate change agenda for a president. On his inaugural day, he is expected to officially rejoin the Paris Agreement, the 2015 pact in which almost every country agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mr Trump officially withdrew the United States from the deal in November. Mr. Biden has also committed to hosting a global climate summit in Washington within the first 100 days of his term in office.
The bill to reduce refrigerants to warm the planet “is the most important thing it can show in the first 100 days, aside from returning to Paris,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, a research organization. “This is one of the first exhibits of success.”
The new legislation would oblige the country’s chemical manufacturers to cease producing and using refrigerants known as fluorocarbons or HFCs. They make up a small percentage of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide from the fossil fuels that power vehicles, power plants, and factories, but they have 1000 times the heat trapping power of carbon dioxide.
In an agreement signed in 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda, in the final days of the Obama administration, 197 nations agreed to phase out HFCs in favor of alternatives that are less dangerous to the climate. The Kigali Agreement was an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the landmark 1987 treaty designed to close the hole in the ozone layer.
Once the Kigali Change is implemented by all nations, scientists say it would prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising nearly one degree Fahrenheit. This would be an important step in averting an atmospheric temperature rise of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the point at which many experts believe that the world is headed into a future of rising sea levels, severe droughts and floods, widespread food and water shortages, and much more severe hurricanes. However, the Trump administration has never ratified the Kigali Pact and instead proposed that federal regulations to curb the use of HFCs in the US be withdrawn.
Now, Mr Trump is about to sign a bill requiring the United States to abide by the terms of the Kigali Agreement, which requires companies to reduce HFC production and consumption to around 15 percent of 2012 levels by 2036. Down is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The main US negotiators of the Kigali Amendment were John Kerry, the former Secretary of State, and Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator, both named as Mr Biden’s top White House climate advisors.
Even in a Biden government, it is not certain whether the United States will ratify the Kigali Pact, as that would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate. But the new law would bring the United States into compliance regardless.
“This gives Kigali the green light to take action,” said Frank V. Maisano, principal at Bracewell law firm, which represents chemical companies.
American chemical companies were actually among the strongest supporters of the Kigali Pact and the HFC Act, as most of them are already making the more climate-friendly HFC substitutes and an exit would give them a competitive advantage over older technology manufacturers.
Stephen Yurek, the executive director of the Industrial, Heating and Cooling Institute, an industrial group, was in Kigali four years ago to push for the deal. For the past two years he has lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill to get this into effect.
“US companies are already leaders in technology designed to replace less environmentally friendly refrigerants,” he said. “This calculation is a victory for the manufacturers of all these products – not just for the refrigerants. the device and component manufacturers, ”he said.
Mr. Yurek said his industry was also concerned that at least eight states had passed laws of their own mandating HFC reductions and creating a patchwork of rules “making it harder for manufacturers”.
The industry push brought on Senate Republicans, at least 16 of whom were sponsored by the legislation co-authored by Delaware Senator Thomas Carper, senior Democrat on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, and Senator John Kennedy . Republicans of Louisiana. There are hundreds of chemical manufacturing facilities in Mr. Kennedy’s state. He formulated the bill as a job creator for these companies.
“To create thousands of jobs, save billions of dollars and protect the environment, we need to invest in alternatives to HFCs,” he said.
Environmental groups have chosen to read big things in this Republican support, though it may not come about over bills flatly rejected by other industries, particularly oil and gas companies.
“Voters want action against the climate, and even some Republicans want action against the climate, and the Republicans leading this HFC deal are beginning to understand that,” said Matthew Davis, Legislative Director of the League of Conservation Voters.
In addition to the HFC bill, the larger package contained a non-partisan renewable energy bill that was jointly sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the chairman and senior Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee.
The bill would not budget for new government spending, but would approve $ 35 billion in existing government funding for clean energy programs over the next five years, including $ 1 billion for energy storage technology used as batteries for wind and solar energy could serve $ 1.5 billion for demonstration projects for new solar technology, $ 2.1 billion for advanced nuclear technology and $ 450 million for technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The bill would also direct federal agencies to update the government programs that oversee renewable energy spending.
“Some of these will be the first updates to these programs since the iPhone was first used,” said Josh Freed, an energy policy analyst at Third Way, a center-left research organization. “It’s critical because energy systems looked very different 10 years ago. There were almost no electric vehicles on the road, very small solar panels on roofs, and there was no Tesla. “
For all the solemn language, climate change is likely to remain a partisan land mine. Refrigerant industry lobbyist Mr. Yurek said he was reluctant to use the word “climate” at all when talking about the bill for fear that Mr. Trump would veto laws that would boost Mr. Biden’s agenda .
“We didn’t want to give him an excuse not to sign it,” said Mr. Yurek.
Brad Plumer contributed to the coverage.