President Biden’s goal of cutting greenhouse gases more than 50% by 2030 is not feasible without a rapid transformation of the U.S. economy that would hit electricity generation, transportation, agriculture and manufacturing particularly hard, experts say.
Mr. Biden, knowing the difficulty that lies ahead, has not presented a detailed plan of how his administration will hit the 2030 target. The White House has stressed only two avenues for combating climate change: a clean electricity standard and the phaseout of gasoline-powered cars.
Making changes to those two sectors of the economy is essential to combating climate change because they produce more than half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation accounts for nearly 29%, and electricity generation makes up 25% of emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Researchers at the University of Maryland estimated what it would take to reach Mr. Biden’s goal: The electricity sector would have to slash emissions 76% by 2030, and the transportation sector would have to reduce emissions by 40%.
A substantial cut in the electricity sector is considered onerous. Producers already have shifted toward natural gas, which generates fewer emissions than coal, and are significantly curbing their reliance on fossil fuels. In 2020, more than 39% of all U.S. electricity was generated from carbon-free sources such as nuclear power and hydroelectricity.
Mr. Biden wants to go further. He has proposed a 100% carbon-free electricity mandate by 2035. The policy explicitly targets the coal and natural gas industries, which produce 63% of all electricity consumed in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.
“The only way the president can meet his emissions target is by eviscerating coal and natural gas,” said Steve Milloy, who was a member of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. “For the administration to come even close to its electricity standard, it would need to close down at least 11 coal and natural gas plants per month between now and 2035.”
Complicating matters are congressional Democrats who oppose investment in the expansion of nuclear energy and other alternatives to generate carbon-free electricity. Instead, they prioritize solar and wind, which are less-reliable sources of energy.
“There aren’t enough solar panels or wind turbines to generate the electricity required to power the U.S. economy,” Mr. Milloy said. “Solar and wind are temperamental and can’t be adapted to work in every part of the country, especially in the Northeast.”
To curtail emissions in the transportation sector, the White House is pushing the phaseout of gasoline-powered vehicles in favor of electric cars.
The administration is working with congressional Democrats to ensure that its $2.25 trillion infrastructure package includes at least $174 billion for the transition to electric vehicles. At least $40 billion would be used to install 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the country.
“The transportation sector is the one area we have not done almost anything to address greenhouse gas emissions,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said. “We are going to use every tool we can to make this happen. … The [infrastructure plan] is obviously a big tool in the toolbox.”
It is not clear, though, whether consumers would make the transition to electric vehicles in broad enough numbers. A study published in Nature Energy, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, shows that 1 out of 5 electric vehicle owners in California revert to gas-powered cars, though that is mainly because they don’t have easy access to charging at home.
Questions also linger as to whether electric vehicle policies and a 100% clean electricity standard would be complementary or contrasting. Energy experts argue that a stable and abundant electricity supply would be required for electric vehicles to overtake gas-powered cars on the road.
“Everyone points to electric cars as the answer, arguing they curb emissions by cutting down on the use of gasoline,” said Dan Kish, a senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research. “The other side, though, is you wind up relying more on electricity generation, which in the U.S. mostly comes from coal and natural gas.”
That reliance on coal and natural gas is unlikely to cease, given current political realities.
Mr. Biden’s 100% clean energy standard, in its current form, faces long odds in the 50-50 Senate. The proposal would have to be modified to garner at least 10 Republican supporters to avert a filibuster, or it would have to be passed through budget reconciliation, a tactic allowing fiscal measures to pass on a simple majority vote.
Both paths run through Sen. Joe Manchin III, a conservative Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia. Mr. Manchin, who serves as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has signaled his displeasure with using reconciliation too frequently and opposes abolishing the filibuster. The senator is also keen to protect the energy industry in West Virginia, one of the nation’s most economically distressed states.
“I think that we can do [a clean energy standard] and move forward, but we’re not going to eliminate,” Mr. Manchin said during a recent forum hosted by the American Council on Renewable Energy. “You can’t just say we’re going to eliminate using all fossil and coal’s going to be out, oil’s going to be out, everything else, gas is going to be out of it.”
Mr. Manchin’s stance increases the chance that the administration’s efforts to reach the 2030 target would be conducted via executive action.
Regulations are likely to fall heaviest on the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, which combined account for 33% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Nicolas Loris, the Joyce Morgan fellow in energy and environmental policy at The Heritage Foundation, said manufacturing is in the crosshairs of regulators because of its diversification and complexity.
“Energy-intensive manufacturing industries are a big target,” Mr. Loris said. “Everything will be on the table, from different processes to cement production to how much and what kind of energy firms can use in the manufacturing process.”
Democrats are expected to target the agriculture sector because it relies on chemicals such as nitrogen, a major component of fertilizer, and produces methane gas from livestock emissions.
Republican lawmakers, however, are readying for the challenge. Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, is promising to lead the charge against any regulations that hurt “farm country.”
“The proposals the administration has floated … are non-starters without congressional approval,” Mr. Boozman said. “The U.S. needs to stay both productive and competitive to provide food for this nation. … Widespread retirement of fossil fuel energy sources in rural America would result in a substantial cost increase to power homes and businesses in farm country.”