Clean Energy and Climate Action Agenda for the New Congress

House Speaker Pelosi aptly calls climate change “the existential threat of our time.” Here's an ambitious clean energy and climate action agenda for the new Congress.
Credit: Hurricane Florence, Sept.2018, South Carolina National Guard

With the change in leadership of the House of Representatives, the new Congress offers real opportunities for renewed action on climate change, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi aptly called “the existential threat of our time.”

None too soon. In the wake of last year’s epic storms and fires, and the blockbuster science reports on the deepening danger, the public is demanding action as never before. The fast-growing Sunrise Movement shows how deeply young people are engaged, and a raft of recent polls show concern over the climate crisis is rising across generational, geographic, and partisan lines. (Yale-George Mason, AP-NORC, Monmouth, FoxNews, WSJ/NBC). The momentum behind a Green New Deal is a sign that the public and many leaders are ready to push for action at the scale needed to tackle the climate crisis.  

A safe climate and a strong economy go hand in hand. We can achieve both with a strategy to reach a 100% clean energy economy and cut our overall climate pollution to net zero. Investing in clean energy protects the health of children, counters the dangerous impacts of climate change, and creates millions of new jobs for people of all different skill sets and education levels. Clean energy already supports more than three million jobs across the country. 

The House of Representatives has two essential tasks to reset the congressional agenda on climate action:

  • First, undertaking oversight of the horrific assault on environmental and health standards and programs that President Trump has initiated across agencies, and
  • Second—the subject of this blog—getting down to the business of American leadership on clean energy and climate solutions. Climate and clean energy solutions should be pursued through development of targeted bills and woven into infrastructure, appropriations, and other cross-cutting legislation. 

What the House Needs to do on Clean Energy and Climate Protection

The House of Representatives can lead on climate change by developing and moving forward legislation that charts an ambitious and equitable pathway to a safe climate, as well as legislation that takes a wide range of critical and broadly-supported steps towards that goal. 

Here we offer an initial list of clean energy and climate pollution policy solutionssome of the many options for cutting America’s heat-trapping pollution. 

  • The House needs to introduce and advance legislation that rises to the climate challenge by charting an ambitious pathway to a strong and equitable economy based on 100% clean energy and net-zero climate pollution by 2050. (“Net-zero” means producing almost all our energy from carbon-pollution-free sources and removing carbon from the atmosphere to make up for sources that take longer to completely decarbonize.) Such legislation can unify members of Congress and rally the American people around a vision that rises to the scale of the climate challenge. Even if unlikely to become law in the next two years of divided government, this is a vision the next president and next Congress can implement. 
  • At the same time, both the House and Senate should move forward with bills to deploy clean energy and climate solutions available today, and to develop and incentivize technologies we’ll need in the future. Many of these solutions enjoy broad bipartisan and stakeholder support today and can be enacted in this Congress. Some will take longer, but building support for these solutions now will position them for action in the next Congress and administration.

Let’s delve deeper into our clean energy vision and the near-term building blocks. (NRDC is developing a full suite of climate priorities for Congressional consideration, including measures for adaptation and resilience, protecting natural systems, and reforming fossil fuel policy.)

Charting Clean Energy and Climate Goals and Targets

To unify legislators committed to climate action, and to galvanize support from the American public, the House needs to create a vision for action that matches the scale of the climate crisis and the economic opportunity.

This visionary legislation should set out the pathway to reach a 100% clean energy economy and cut America’s net climate pollution to zero by mid-century.    

  • A 100% clean energy economy that achieves net zero climate pollution will deliver enormous public health benefits on top of climate protection.
  • The vision must include advancing economic growth and opportunity for all Americans in every phase of this transformation, and reducing environmental and economic burdens on low-income areas, communities of color, and rural America. 
  • It should ensure that the clean energy economy creates high-quality jobs that support families and communities, and help all Americans navigate the transition to the economy of the future.   

To be sure, the current Senate and president are unlikely to embrace this vision. But the House must lead, responding to the demands of climate science, reflecting the economic opportunities of clean energy, and pointing the way to the transformative policies we must adopt over the coming decade. 

Building Block Legislation

The House can also make near-term progress by moving forward with broadly-supported and common-sense “building blocks” of climate progress—including research and development (R&D) support, technology deployment incentives, and clean energy and carbon pollution performance standards. Some of these building blocks can be enacted in the next two years. Others can be positioned for adoption in the next Congress and administration.

Some of the most promising building block opportunities focus on the electricity and transportation sectors—our biggest contributors to climate-damaging emissions. And there are more clean energy and climate opportunities for our commercial buildings and homes and other industrial sectors. Many of these policies can be enacted in this Congress, or at least positioned to progress in the next Congress. 

What follows is a non-exhaustive list focusing on some of our biggest opportunities.

Research & Development

The House should take the lead on legislation to double U.S. investment in clean energy innovation, updating DOE programs to build on historic R&D breakthroughs in energy efficient lighting, heating, and cooling, and solar and wind generation (see the Revolution Now report). Legislation should:

  • Increase R&D to achieve the next generation of cost reductions and performance improvements in key efficiency and renewable technologies; energy storage technologies and grid upgrades to enable round-the-clock and all-season use of renewables and to accelerate vehicle and building electrification; and cutting-edge transportation efficiency and alternative fuel technologies.
  • Scale up strategies to reach net zero—or even negative—climate pollution by enhancing natural carbon storage in plants, trees, and soils, developing new technologies to pull carbon from the air, applying carbon capture and storage to more industries, and assuring the permanence and safety of carbon storage. 

Clean Energy Deployment 

The federal government plays an essential role in getting new technologies from the lab to the market. The House can take the lead to update and expand clean energy deployment incentives: 

  • Update energy efficiency tax credits for commercial buildings and homes, including accelerated depreciation for high efficiency commercial products and promising industrial process innovations.
  • Extend electric vehicle tax incentives so that first mover companies and consumers have the widest array of affordable options. Include incentives to deploy electric buses, heavy-duty trucks, and off-road vehicles.
  • Restore an investment tax credit for offshore wind projects and include energy storage projects in combination with solar and wind.
  • Make clean energy tax credits and other incentives available to key actors like coops and municipal utilities that don’t have tax obligations.

Standards & Markets

Publicly funded R&D and tax incentives can dramatically improve the performance and lower the cost of clean energy technologies. But standards—set as performance or market-based measures—will ultimately be needed in all sectors to make all technologies account for their climate-changing pollution, and thereby level the playing field for clean energy.    

  • Step one is for the House to keep defending our bedrock environmental and energy laws and critical clean energy and climate pollution standards in place today—e.g., clean car and fuel economy standards, clean air standards, appliance energy efficiency standards. 
  • The House should also consider a range of new tools, including clean energy standards that drive new clean investment in electric power; market-based climate pollution limits from single or multiple sectors; and carbon pricing mechanisms that guarantee needed emission reductions. These proposals should add to, not replace, tools in the current regulatory toolbox. 
  • The House can also adopt broadly-supported initiatives for key industries, including phasing down high-potency HFCs and curbing methane leakage from oil and gas operations.

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NRDC is eager to work with all stakeholders on a just and equitable transition to a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero climate pollution—to safeguard our children, our communities, our country, and our world from climate catastrophe.

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