At first glance, United States President Joe Biden’s giant American Jobs Plan seems like an environmentalist’s dream: enormous investment in electric vehicles, big tax incentives for renewable energy and widespread improvements to the ailing US power grid.
The initiative would also create a Civilian Climate Corps, putting young Americans on the front lines of enhancing resilience and conserving public lands for the first time. And crucially, it would dedicate major resources to the research and development of low-emissions technology.
But faced with a climate crisis that is so vast and four years of inaction by the administration of former President Donald Trump, some progressive activists are arguing that Biden’s massive $2.25 trillion infrastructure programme is too small to make a decisive difference in reversing global warming.
Advocates and political leaders, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, are pushing for a financial commitment more than four times larger.
But the Biden administration is caught between the left flank of the Democratic party, which demands more colossal monetary backing to safeguard the climate, and the centrist members of Congress who Biden needs to successfully make the historic infrastructure legislation a reality.
“The administration struck the right balance with the scope and scale of what they’re putting forward,” Anne Kelly, vice president of government relations at sustainability non-profit Ceres, told Al Jazeera. “There’s a lot that the business community will support.”
“Our very strong hope is that we can cultivate Republican support for many of the key provisions as well, but that remains to be seen,” she added. “There is lots to like in the package — though of course, it could be bigger.”
The road ahead for the bill will include months of political manoeuvring, so Biden’s opening gambit may only be a starting point for debating which parts of the infrastructure campaign take precedence and how corporate taxes will be used to pay for the gargantuan outlays.
Among the compromises that could win those moderate votes is a nod to carbon capture technology, helpful for coal-dominated states. Yet fossil-fuel critics say Biden also should not be handing funds to oil and gas companies to plug their own orphan wells.
But if Biden wants his plan to become law, he must weigh bipartisan support with taking decisive action on the biggest environmental issue of our times — and it’s a delicate dance.
‘Set the bar higher’
Natalie Mebane, US policy director for 350.org, said she is happy with most of the spending priorities identified by Biden, but that the bottom line could be bolder.
“We’re asking for an investment of $16 trillion over 10 years,” she told Al Jazeera. “There’s no such thing as ‘too ambitious’. We are in an emergency and have been for so long.”
Mebane said the BUILD GREEN Act co-sponsored by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren, among others, would amount to $10 trillion over a decade, but would also fall short.
President Biden’s industry friendly infrastructure plan squanders one of our last, best chances.
“There’s not as much sticker shock as there would have been a few years ago,” said Mebane, pointing to the series of spending bills Americans have embraced, both from Biden and Trump. “You set the bar higher and then negotiate down from there.”
She cited the inadequate funding for new train lines under Biden’s plan, which includes about $80bn for Amtrak — perhaps enough for a couple of new high-speed rail corridors. Transit advocates are competing with highways, ports and other parts of the physical infrastructure for a $650bn portion of the plan.
“I don’t need to fly there or drive there. I’d rather sit back, take a nap, wake up and get there,” added Mebane. “These are the sort of lifestyle upgrades that we all want.”
However, she said that the repeal of fossil-fuel subsidies, support for disadvantaged groups and creation of many union jobs are very encouraging aspects of the president’s outline.
Biden’s vision aims to rebuild the US economy by renovating dilapidated roads, bridges, housing and broadband, but the predominant focus of the American Jobs Plan is to create millions of jobs by modernising the electrical transmission network and protecting vulnerable communities from the worst impacts of climate change.
An analysis by the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley said that switching over the grid to renewable sources could stimulate the creation of 500,000 jobs every year through 2035.
A 2017 study in the journal Economic Modelling showed that investment in renewables can generate, on average, three times as many employment opportunities as comparable investment in fossil fuels.
We’re asking for an investment of $16 trillion over 10 years. There’s no such thing as ‘too ambitious’. We are in an emergency and have been for so long.
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, renewable energy is the fastest-growing sector in the US. Plummeting costs for solar and wind power, in addition to battery storage, are expected to accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, there were 3.4 million Americans employed in the clean energy sector, according to a 2020 report (PDF) from Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a non-partisan group of business leaders. Many of the new jobs in the pipeline will be to install EV chargers, retrofit buildings and upgrade transmission capacity.
A 2020 report from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy said that as many as 120,000 new jobs could be created by a federal programme to plug abandoned wells.
“Where wells have already been orphaned to the state, it makes sense for the federal government to put local workers back to work plugging orphaned wells,” said Robert Schuwerk, executive director of the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s North America office, in a statement provided to Al Jazeera. “But it shouldn’t plug wells that are the industry’s responsibility.”
Contrary to some perceptions, jobs in the energy efficiency sector — as well as the wind and solar industries — pay slightly more on an hourly basis than fossil-fuel extraction jobs, according to a report (PDF) commissioned by E2 last year.
A March poll (PDF) of 1,310 registered American voters conducted by Climate Nexus suggests that 58 percent of Americans support multi-trillion-dollar stimulus legislation that prioritises clean energy.
The US has emitted more carbon dioxide in the last 150 years than any other nation, which climate campaigners say adds to the imperative for providing global leadership in the economic transformation. While near the top of the heap in emissions per capita, the US remains the second-highest overall emitter annually.
‘The cost of inaction’
Although Biden has promised to slash carbon emissions by 50 percent and decarbonise the electricity sector, some critics fear his plan will not quite accomplish those goals.
“President Biden’s industry-friendly infrastructure plan squanders one of our last, best chances,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Instead of a Marshall Plan approach that moves our economy to renewable energy, it includes gimmicky subsidies for carbon capture, fantastically wishes the free market will save us and fails to take crucial and ambitious steps toward phasing out fossil fuels,” he said.
Our very strong hope is that we can cultivate Republican support for many of the key provisions as well, but that remains to be seen … There is lots to like in the package — though of course, it could be bigger.
But Kelly of Ceres is optimistic about the odds of success.
“The only way to put this in context is to compare it to the cost of inaction, which is monumental in terms of public health, extreme weather events, climate refugees and economic destruction,” she said.
A survey (PDF) of 730 global economists published this week by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University’s School of Law showed that the benefits of acting on climate far outweigh the price.
“[Biden’s plan] is not spending willy-nilly, but a constructive way to keep us on a resilient path to guarantee economic prosperity,” Kelly said. “It finally helps to tip the scales of environmental justice towards those who have been so consistently deprived.”