Sweeping climate bill aims for zero carbon emissions by 2050

'Time for small marginal change is long past,' Pallone said of the bill that touches all corners of the economy

“If we don’t take meaningful nationwide action now our children will inherit an economy and a world beyond their capacity to repair.” Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said as Democrats unveiled ambitious climate legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
“If we don’t take meaningful nationwide action now our children will inherit an economy and a world beyond their capacity to repair.” Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said as Democrats unveiled ambitious climate legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 2, 2021 at 4:39pm

High-ranking House Democrats unveiled legislation Tuesday to zero out domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, including deep cuts in the next decade, a deadline that has support from the world’s leading climate scientists.

The draft bill would set a U.S. goal to reduce greenhouse emissions by at least 50 percent, from 2005 levels, by 2030. It would also set a national goal to “achieve net-zero” emissions by mid-century and direct heads of federal agencies to come up with plans for how to meet those targets by 2050.

“We have to act decisively,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, told reporters. “The time for small marginal change is long past. If we don’t take meaningful nationwide action now our children will inherit an economy and a world beyond their capacity to repair.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.,  used similar language on Feb. 3 to describe climate change, calling it “the existential threat of our time.”

Reps. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., and Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., the chairmen of the panel’s subcommittees on the environment and energy respectively, said there would be hearings on the bill. While the committee members said they aim to move the bill through the committee process and gain Republican support, they did not rule out using the budget reconciliation process to advance it.

'Blueprint'

“It’s a plan, it’s a blueprint for bringing America back into stronger leadership,” Tonko said.

The legislation is the first expansive climate bill either party has offered this Congress, which has seen Democrats make climate change an early priority on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Congressional Republicans have decried President Joe Biden’s steps to rein in emissions.

While China emits the most greenhouse gases of any nation now, the U.S. remains the No. 1 historical emitter.

[As oceans rise, Democrats put all hands on deck for climate change]

The legislation, which would authorize $565 billion over 10 years, is more aggressive than a previous version of the bill introduced in January 2020.

Broad in scope, the new legislation covers the power, transportation, industry and manufacturing sectors, as well as environmental justice, waste reduction and financial topics. 

Clean electricity

It would establish a clean electricity standard to require utility companies to generate an increasing percentage of their electricity from zero-emissions sources. The standard would reach 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035.

Senate Democrats are expected to introduce a clean electricity standard as part of an infrastructure bill that could be the next major legislative proposal after Congress finishes work on the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill.

Asked about pricing carbon emissions through a tax or a cap-and-trade market, Pallone said that was not his preferred method of lowering heat-trapping gases.

“I think it’s time to try something new,” said Pallone. “The votes are just not there for a price on carbon.”

The 981-page bill is more ambitious than the version on display last Congress in part because it would set an interim goal of cutting emissions 50 percent by 2030.

Scientists with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the leading international voice on climate, warned in a landmark 2018 report that international leaders have until 2030 to get emissions under control and halt temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels — the threshold past which scientists say climate change gets significantly worse.

Tonko said the House committee listened to input from Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, adding that the “[clean energy standard] is something that they believe in.”

Support for standard

Lindsey Walter, deputy director for the climate and energy program at Third Way, a centrist think tank, said by phone the legislative structure of the Biden administration’s climate goals are starting to emerge.

“I think it’s perhaps the best policy we have in play right now to decarbonize the electricity sector,” Walter said of the CES concept. “There’s a lot of support behind a clean energy standard.”

She said, “We’re beginning to see actual legislative language being put together to enact the Biden legislative agenda.”

The bill includes ten sections and hundreds of policy proposals and line items, including $2.5 billion for a “clean school bus” program at the EPA and would authorize $2.5 billion annually to increase the pace of transitioning petroleum-powered buses to zero-emissions buses, according to a summary.

It would also set a 10-year deadline for the cleanup of all federal Superfund sites vulnerable to climate change.