Evaluating House Democrats’ new climate change report

On June 30th, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (HSCCC) released its long-awaited report, Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America.

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic downturn, and a renewed movement for racial justice, the report sets out a vision to reach net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 with recommendations on issues from infrastructure to incentivizing new technologies and creating jobs in the clean energy sector. The report also addresses pollution and environmental justice, the nexus between climate and public health, and conservation. The Atlantic Council Global Energy Center asked its experts to provide their analysis of the report and highlight its most important takeaways.

Jump to an expert reaction:

Lee Beck: Tax incentives for carbon capture are key to achieving climate goals.

Emily Burlinghaus: A shift in public opinion on nuclear energy is necessary for climate targets.

David Goldwyn: Report’s specificity on regulation will help Democrats realize their goals.

Jennifer Gordon: HSCCC report shifts the carbon pricing discourse to the left.

Robert Ichord: Carbon pricing and electrification will speed the energy transition.

Olga Khakova: New technologies like blockchain and AI are an integral part of the energy transition.

Irina Markina: HSCCC report represents an effort to return the US to Paris Agreement tenets.

Julia Pyper: HSCCC report shows the consequences of failing to act on climate.

Cynthia Quarterman: HSCCC is right to prioritize infrastructure in fight against climate change.

Zachary Strauss: A whole-of-government approach ensures justice in the energy transition.

Branko Terzic: New electricity infrastructure is necessary, but FERC needs greater siting power.

Ellen Wald: HSCCC report is unambitious on fossil fuels while still overly expensive.

Cherie Wilson: 2020 draws attention to public-private partnerships in the fight for racial equality and environmental justice.

David Yellen: HSCCC report is appropriately ambitious and correctly includes nuclear, CCUS.

Tax incentives for carbon capture are key to achieving climate goals.

“The HSCCC report emphasizes the importance of investment in scaling up cross-cutting and innovative technology options for net-zero emissions such as carbon capture and removal through comprehensive deployment policies, which will enable a lowest cost energy transition globally. It also highlights the crucial role of US leadership in deploying novel carbon capture applications in areas not deployed at scale, including natural gas power and hard-to-abate sectors such as cement production. Most importantly, it recognizes the urgency of a carbon capture scale-up through key policy optimizations, including the 45Q tax credit. 45Q is largely seen as the most progressive carbon capture specific incentive globally, and it has already led to more than thirty carbon capture projects in planning. In this new, uncertain environment, its extension beyond the 2024 “commence construction” deadline, as well as a direct pay option, would bolster 45Q’s ability to realize its full impact in the near-term. The plan also importantly calls for inclusive growth: it directs infrastructure investment and jobs, not only to rural areas, but also to low-income urban areas. Although some pieces of this plan may be cast aside for political expediency, the energy transition must be equitable and inclusive, or it will fall short.”

Lee Beck is CCUS Policy Innovation Director at the Clean Air Task Force and an Atlantic Council 2019 Women in Energy Fellow

A shift in public opinion on nuclear energy is necessary for climate targets.

“Over the past several months, there has been an encouraging shift in public opinion and growing willingness among climate activists—including leaders of the Green New Deal, some members the Extinction Rebellion, and other national and global organizations—to accept nuclear as a necessary clean energy source. The report released this week by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which presents a clear and bold recommendation that Congress include nuclear in a new national clean energy standard, provides a needed push in the right direction toward mitigating climate change and ensuring energy resilience. If implemented, these recommendations have the potential to both spur innovation in clean energy technology and reverse dangerous trends in early nuclear power plant closures that would otherwise pave the way for replacements by carbon-intensive technologies. The acknowledgment from policymakers that the luxury of cherry-picking clean and renewable technologies no longer exists—if the United States is to play a leading role in keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius—is encouraging.”

Emily Burlinghaus is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

Report’s specificity on regulation will help Democrats realize their goals.

“The Select Committee on the Climate Crisis has devised a comprehensive, politically savvy path to net zero emissions by 2050 and net zero power by 2040. Importantly, the Committee seeks to reduce emissions not only from the power and transportation sectors, which are fundamental, but from industry and agriculture as well.

“The report is strategic in many respects. First, through its focus on building a modern grid, investing in zero emissions technologies, upgrading homes and businesses with efficiency measures, and investing in clean water and telecommunications, the report is very much focused on job creation in every energy market in the country. Second, by including support for carbon capture and sequestration, hydrogen, nuclear energy and the plugging of leaky natural gas infrastructure, there is a strong foundation for broad bipartisan support for the plan. Third, the report’s focus on regulatory process improvements, such as breaking down the barriers for introduction of new energy technologies to the grid and empowering the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to up its game on regional planning, provides a pathway towards more efficient infrastructure permitting and planning. Finally, by calculating the health benefits of addressing climate issues, and striving to ameliorate the disproportionate impact of emissions on communities of color, the report takes an important step towards addressing the environmental aspect of the racial justice issues that are front and center for the 2020 election, and which will be the top priority for the next Congressional session.

“With respect to natural gas, the report calls for a “national methane pollution reduction goal for the oil and gas sector of 65% to 70% by 2025 and 90% by 2030, relative to 2012 levels, and a phase out routine flaring of methane,” which is a priority issue that many US oil and gas companies agree should be addressed. For pipelines, the report calls on Congress to “direct regulators to set new standards for pipeline operators to detect and repair methane leaks; provide financial support for cities and states to eliminate methane leaks from natural gas distribution lines within 10 years.” For permitting, the report recommends amending the Natural Gas Act to require consideration of “upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions, community and landowner impacts, and market necessity on a long-term and regional basis.” The report refrains from hard and fast prohibitions on fuels or infrastructure, but instead requires accounting for their full impacts.  

“There is something for everyone in this report, as long as everyone is committed to net zero by 2050.  This is no messaging report; it is a legislative and regulatory blueprint built for a bipartisan audience. For those who were skeptical of a green new deal, or who thought the climate report would be a simple messaging bill, this report will be a wake-up call.”

David Goldwyn is president of Goldwyn Global Strategies, LLC, and chairman of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center’s Energy Advisory Group

HSCCC report shifts the carbon pricing discourse to the left.

“The HSCCC report encompasses a Climate Crisis Action Plan, which includes specific policy recommendations and notes on the committee(s) of jurisdiction for each one. Interestingly, the Action Plan includes a section on carbon pricing, but it does not provide specific recommendations or relevant committees. Instead, the report cautions that a price on carbon should be deployed as one of many tools to “complement a suite of policies to achieve deep pollution reductions and strengthen community resilience to climate impacts.”

“The report notes that revenue generated as a result of carbon pricing should be “used to invest in communities, research and development, and more,” in a rebuke to revenue-neutral carbon pricing mechanisms that are often championed by conservatives. Furthermore, the report notes that carbon pricing as a standalone policy could harm environmental justice communities by failing to prevent an increase in GHG emissions. There is also the possibility that a carbon pricing mechanism could affect lower-income energy consumers disproportionately, especially if designed as a carbon tax, which is often regressive. In raising issues around a carbon pricing scheme, rather than making specific carbon pricing recommendations, the HSCCC report has shifted discourse around the negative externalities of carbon farther to the left, which will perhaps provide breathing room for at least some of the many carbon pricing proposals put forward over the last year in Congress.”

Jennifer Gordon is managing editor and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

Carbon pricing and electrification will speed the energy transition.

“The HSCCC report correctly identifies electrification as critical to a national climate strategy and the priority of deep carbonization of the power sector. However, while the report recognizes the current role of nuclear energy in providing almost 55 percent of US carbon free electricity and the need to support research, development, and demonstration on new nuclear technologies, it does not sufficiently recognize the serious challenge to decarbonization that the United States faces if nuclear power plants continue to close prematurely. Including nuclear in the proposed national clean energy standard is desirable in this regard, as is the proposed modernization and redesign of wholesale power markets to value nuclear power’s high reliability and resiliency. Of fundamental importance is the recommendation to put a price on carbon. To implement this measure, a national carbon fee would provide the private sector with incentives for clean energy technology development, and it would help mobilize the financial revenues that could be used for energy infrastructure modernization; research, development, and demonstration; and for programs that help low-income energy consumers and small businesses. The international context for this strategy also deserves greater attention, as does the potential for cooperation with the EU and other allies, especially in energy technology innovation.”

Robert Ichord is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

New technologies like blockchain and AI are an integral part of the energy transition.

“The HSCCC report notes the importance of reliable wireless and broadband networks and briefly mentions cyber security, but it is missing a comprehensive digital strategy, which could help with implementing the Climate Crisis Action Plan recommendations. Cyber security will play a key role in secure electrification and digitalization. New technologies, such as blockchain and artificial intelligence, have tremendous potential to gather and process information and create transparency and operational efficiencies, while also improving greenhouse emissions tracking, mitigation, and verification. Investments in digital solutions for the energy sector will create jobs, improve energy security, and will reduce greenhouse emissions and should be included in Congressional efforts.”

Olga Khakova is an associate director at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

HSCCC report represents an effort to return the US to Paris Agreement tenets.

“The Climate Crisis Action Plan champions racial equality, socioeconomic justice, and public health at the center of the climate action. In that sense, it is a climate policy framework encompassing key elements of the Democratic Party platform. It is also closely associated with other ongoing Democratic legislative initiatives such as the House-proposed major legislative package on infrastructure, the Moving Forward Act. In line with the UNFCCC climate science targets needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the HSCCC report sets a goal of reaching net-zero GHG emissions economy-wide by 2050 and net-negative emissions in the second half of the century. To reach this objective, the report offers a range of policy and market solutions focusing on twelve key pillars in the energy, environmental, transportation, industrial, agriculture, and health sectors, but also on cross-cutting issues like R&D and innovation.

“In a significant move that is likely to be heavily scrutinized, the report also proposes federal methane reduction goals for the oil and gas sector, and a phase-out of routine methane flaring. If made binding in the future, the new methane standard would likely contribute to ensuring that natural gas retains its social license as a “bridge fuel” in the transition to climate neutrality by mid-century. On the international front, the report supports the United States rejoining the Paris Agreement and delivering on financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund.

“From the international perspective, it is a salient signal to global partners committed to implementing the Paris Agreement. Major economies will be meeting on July 9 under the IEA umbrella to discuss the sustainable recovery post-COVID-19 at the Clean Energy Transitions Summit, likely the main international sustainability event this year. The HSCCC report is in line with efforts for cooperation and inter-parliamentary dialogues on climate action.”

Irina Markina is a senior energy advisor at the European Union Delegation to the United States and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

HSCCC report shows the consequences of failing to act on climate.

“The House Democrats’ Climate Crisis Action Plan comes amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, heightened calls to end racial injustices, and a fast-approaching presidential election. It also comes as areas of the Arctic are experiencing record high temperatures and record low levels of sea ice, which is a stark reminder of the complex and urgent set of challenges that the Select Committee report set out to address.

“The 538-page document outlines policies that will help the US economy achieve net-zero carbon pollution by 2050, and net negative pollution thereafter, a goal that scientists say is necessary to hit in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Democrats’ proposed policy solutions focus on twelve key areas, offering guidance on everything from investing in infrastructure to addressing environmental injustices.

“The report was produced by majority staff, with input from a wide range of stakeholders. The comprehensive roadmap shows a high degree of agreement between various factions of the Democratic Party and among climate advocates across the ideological spectrum. Many of the proposed policy solutions are also grounded in specific pieces of legislation that have bipartisan backing. However, it is an open question as to whether the report’s recommendations will be able to garner enough political support on both sides of the aisle to advance in the legislature. That said, bipartisan cooperation may matter less depending on how Democrats fare in the 2020 election. 

“To assess real-world impacts of the climate plan, Select Committee staff ran their policy recommendations through a policy simulator created by the nonpartisan think tank Energy Innovation. The model found that a subset of the recommendations would prevent 62,000 premature deaths each year by 2050 and provide $8 trillion in climate and health benefits by 2050.

“The analysis also found that some of the Action Plan’s proposed policy solutions are considered too “speculative” to properly measure. This exercise “underscores how difficult it is to eliminate emissions economy-wide, that a suite of solutions is necessary, and why climate action is needed now for new technologies to progress along the learning curve in time for widespread deployment before mid-century,” according to the report.

“Ultimately, no policy roadmap exists today with all of the answers for how to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, while fully addressing related economic and racial inequalities, public health impacts, and needed investments in climate resilience. But it is clear that failing to embark down the path to zero will put these targets out of reach.”

Julia Pyper is a contributing editor at Greentech Media and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

HSCCC is right to prioritize infrastructure in fight against climate change.

“The Climate Crisis Action Plan is a strong first step toward renewing the United States’ commitment to address climate change. The plan is right to prioritize infrastructure, since infrastructure investment helps the country achieve three important climate-related goals: supporting the economy with much needed jobs during a slump; advancing the development and deployment of new clean technologies; and, if done right, ultimately boosting public health and environmental justice for all. The US Congress should move on this initiative because the country cannot afford to be caught flat-footed when the next global disaster falls.”

Cynthia Quarterman is a distinguished senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

A whole-of-government approach ensures justice in the energy transition.

“In developing this ambitious framework, report authors unabashedly anchored resilience and justice into their prospective policies and recommendations. They have the met moment in firmly acknowledging that the status quo and climate inaction have and will continue to have disproportionately negative effects on low-income communities and communities of color. At the same time, justice for one community cannot come at the expense of another; report authors rightfully propose economic and social service programs for coal country and other fossil fossil-dependent areas that will likely see higher levels of unemployment and reduced local tax revenue as result of the energy transition.

“In making a strong case, report authors demonstrate the critical value the clean energy transition will provide for job creation, health outcomes, cost savings, US military performance, and overall national security. Most importantly, in an effort to minimize the climate burden that disadvantaged communities will bear, the report advocates for a truly whole-of-government approach. As such, the report authors call for a healthcare strategy to treat those most affected by extreme weather impacts and pollution-related illness, enhanced digital connectivity to better support areas affected by climate disasters, more robust democratic institutions to aid disenfranchised communities in their fight against entrenched fossil interests, among other cross-sectoral recommendations. In taking all constituents and communities into account, this report serves as a strong start for a promising future.”

Zachary Strauss is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

New electricity infrastructure is necessary, but FERC needs greater siting power.

“The Climate Crisis Action Plan sets a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide in the United States by no later than 2050. In addition to offering a range of greenhouse gas mitigation strategies, the report calls for carbon pricing, which most economists recognize and promote as the single most effective tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The text notes, however, that carbon pricing is not a “silver bullet,” rather than citing and elaborating on the strong economic case for carbon pricing.

“One section of the report is, however, strong on promoting electrification—with carbon free energy sources—of residential, commercial, and transportation equipment that now use fossil fuels such as diesel, gasoline, and natural gas. However, recognizing the need for new electric infrastructure investment, especially in the transmission grid, the report does not call on Congress to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) power line siting authority. That siting authority resides in individual states even when the design of the transmission line is to meet multi-state needs. It calls on FERC “to develop a long-range transmission infrastructure strategy to site more interstate transmission lines in high-priority corridors.” FERC can develop such a strategy, but without siting authority equivalent to that which FERC has in siting interstate natural gas pipelines, FERC will remain unable to ensure that such lines are built where needed.”

Branko Terzic is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

HSCCC report is unambitious on fossil fuels while still overly expensive.

“The Democratic congressional climate plan takes a long-needed step toward acknowledging the hard realities of technology, energy, and the environment. Specifically, this plan breaks new ground in that it acknowledges that the technologies that would allow full decarbonization of energy platforms, “have yet to be invented.”

“However, many of the benchmarks noted in this report will almost surely be unachievable in the specified timeframes. As an aspirational plan, this may be valuable, but many will argue that more realism would have been more useful in preparing the United States for future needs. Politically, the Climate Crisis Action Plan contained in the report falls far short of the grandiose Green New Deal’s call for the elimination of all fossil fuels and may thus be viewed as a non-starter by some in Congress. In addition, the funding and regulatory expansions called for in this plan are still astronomical in size and contain certain policy features that fiscal conservatives are unlikely to endorse.”

Ellen Wald is the president of Transversal Consulting and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

2020 draws attention to public-private partnerships in the fight for racial equality and environmental justice.

“2020 has viscerally exposed what communities of color, particularly African American or Black communities, have been living with for generations. Now a surge of private sector attention has emerged in recent weeks as the business community has made bold commitments to both acknowledge and address racial inequality, such as the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce as well as numerous individual companies like General Motors, which aspires to be the most inclusive company in the world.  These pronouncements come at a time when the public is witnessing an outpouring of social unrest and rebellion related to the racist and unequitable treatment of black lives, triggered by the latest public murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in late-May under the literal knee of law enforcement. Couple this with the tragic COVID-19 global pandemic, which is claiming black and brown lives at disproportionately high rates in the United States. Long-standing, systemic health disparities and social determinants that are rooted in institutional policies, such as redlining, have undermined equitable access to clean air and water, quality education, health care, and economic opportunity. This intersection is particularly poignant when matters of air quality are viewed through an environmental justice lens in the United States, in addition to the looming threat that global climate change imposes on black and brown communities, as well as post-colonial nation states, which have the least immediate access to resources for adaptation, resiliency and mitigation. In fact, nearly one year ago to the date, the United Nations released a report warning the world of a “climate apartheid” scenario that pits the wealthy against the poor and vulnerable, if left unchecked. 

“It is within this context, that the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis has released its majority report, Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America, representing a culmination of the Committee’s work this Congress, and totaling over 500 pages in text. As stakeholders—including NGOs, corporations, community organizers, and others—begin to digest the report it is no surprise that the Committee has prioritized environmental justice and economic opportunity for vulnerable, frontline communities as a core tenet of its work.  The majority report puts forth a bold vision for an equitable and environmentally sustainable America by proposing a suite of policy options to price carbon pollution, decarbonize public transit, advance renewable energy, encourage low and zero-carbon fuels, and equitably deploy electric vehicles and related charging infrastructure. As the private sector continues to tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges in the country, it must also view the environmental justice and equity issues put forth in the report as valid. To that end, corporations should begin to rethink how they set, interpret, and measure their sustainability 2030 targets, for example, with an eye towards addressing these very challenging issues, both internally and externally. Let’s harness the collective power of the public and private sectors not only to transform policies but change hearts and minds, which is a necessary precursor to providing the restorative justice and sustainable solutions these impacted communities deserve. “

Cherie Wilson is an Atlantic Council 2019 Women in Energy Fellow and Director, Federal Affairs, General Motors. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s individual views and do not reflect an endorsement of the report nor represent the views of GM.

HSCCC report is appropriately ambitious and correctly includes nuclear, CCUS.

“Not only is the HSCCC report appropriately ambitious, but it has also omitted the counterproductive pieces of progressive climate policy that may have prevented the achievement of its targets. Instead of phasing out nuclear power entirely, this plan directs support to aging reactors. And while some progressives have opposed essential carbon capture technologies, the Climate Crisis Action Plan contained in the report calls for increased research, development, and demonstration in industrial applications.

“Most importantly, the proposed federal clean energy standard covers all “zero-emission technologies”—not just renewables. That technology-neutrality makes for a far more economically efficient emissions-reduction plan. It also, importantly, supports innovation and avoids technological lock-in that could thwart climate goals. This leads to perhaps the most refreshing part of the plan: its specific emphasis on investment into research, development, and demonstrationto bring cutting-edge clean technologies from the lab, across the valley of death, and to market. The United States needs technological innovation to compete in clean energy, and innovation is essential to making these technologies more reliable, secure, and cost-competitive. There is a lot more to like about this plan, from its inclusion of hydrogen fuel to its call for a national super-grid that is more resilient and flexible, but a more granular breakdown of planned investments will illuminate how the Democrats plan to carry out these plans.”

David Yellen is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

Further reading:

Image: US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference with House Democrats to unveil a plan to cut nearly 90% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 on the steps of the US Capitol Building, June 30, 2020 in Washington, US REUTERS/Leah Millis