From his first day in office, President Joe Biden has been under tremendous pressure to swiftly address three immediate crises: the pandemic, unemployment, and climate change.
If all goes according to his plans, Congress will pass a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue bill as early as next week, helping to stem the first two crises. Next, Biden hopes to further tackle unemployment along with climate change through Build Back Better, a $2 trillion infrastructure plan he outlined last summer after Covid-19 hit. On Wednesday, the Senate kicked off the process of turning that vision into a bill.
One of the theories of Build Back Better is to cut emissions by pouring federal dollars into projects like high-speed rail and tax incentives for clean energy installation. At the same time, the Biden plan envisions that these green infrastructure projects will yield millions of good-paying jobs to help recover the nearly 10 million jobs the country has yet to regain since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Biden administration has been hammering home the connection between climate policy and jobs in recent weeks. In a CNN op-ed earlier this month, White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy wrote that “climate will play an integral role in economic growth and job creation in the months and years ahead.”
Because climate change is such a pressing, existential threat, addressing it will undoubtedly require difficult trade-offs. But Biden has a huge opportunity here to invest in popular programs. Several options on the table can help connect fighting climate change with job growth, cost savings, and better quality of life — by upgrading to electric cars, for instance, and building out the infrastructure to support them.
President Barack Obama’s first term offers some lessons. In the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Congress directed $90 billion toward clean energy. Some of these investments did produce immediate economic benefits, but significant job growth started four years after the bill passed, according to one study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Build Back Better is different, Sam Ricketts, co-founder of Evergreen Action and former climate director for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign, argued. “It is going to be bigger this time around,” he said. “It is going to be more diverse when it comes to the types of investments both in clean energy and sustainable infrastructure.” These features will lead to faster job growth, he said.
Specifically, to make climate policy good for the economy on the immediate horizon, Congress will have to push forward the policies that experts say can quickly deliver on both fronts. Some of those double-edged proposals include building out the nation’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure, reinstating the Cash for Clunkers program to boost clean car sales, and launching the Civilian Climate Corps, an updated version of a New Deal program that employed people directly in conservation jobs during the Great Depression.
Actually shepherding a bill with such strong climate measures through a divided Senate will likely be a challenge. Infrastructure is ostensibly bipartisan, and $35 billion in energy investment made it into December’s stimulus. But if Democrats face opposition, they have ways to move ahead without Republican support.
How Congress navigates this process has implications not just for climate change and the economy, but also for Democrats’ political viability. In a January op-ed in the New York Times, Ezra Klein wrote that Democrats must find a way to cut through gridlock and deliver tangible benefits to Americans reeling from the pandemic; otherwise, they deserve to lose in the midterms.
With climate set to play such a big role in the economic recovery, let’s look at some of the key policies that can concretely help Americans in the coming years while reducing emissions.
Fast-acting green stimulus ideas
1) Build 500,000 electric vehicle chargers
If you build the chargers, the electric vehicles will come, it is said. In 2019, electric vehicles (EV) sales were only 2 percent of US total sales, but that is expected to increase in the coming years as new EV models come on the market and the Biden administration implements supporting policies, including stronger fuel economy standards.
Quickly building out a better network of chargers can help accelerate the shift by easing drivers’ “range anxiety” — the fear that their battery might run out of charge on a long-distance drive. (For reference, a Chevrolet Bolt has a 259-mile range on a full charge.) Most charging happens at home and will continue to, but a recent study published in Nature Energy found that accessible charging in public spaces and along highways can make it much easier for drivers to meet all their driving needs with an electric vehicle.
Enter the Biden plan. In Build Back Better, Biden set a target for the federal government to spur the construction of 500,000 public charging stations. (Note: Most analysts have interpreted this target as 500,000 charging outlets — there are typically two to three outlets per station, and nearly 100,000 outlets are in place today.)
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, hitting the goal of 500,000 outlets would cover more than 50 percent of US EV charging needs by 2030 and help catalyze electric vehicle sales.
But how would the chargers actually be built? “There are many ways to implement such a plan, but federal tax credits are probably the leading candidate,” said Nic Lutsey, a program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. Through tax credits, he explained, many different companies would continue to build the infrastructure, similar to the array of gas stations you see today.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other senators have proposed a different route to expand EV charging: directing $45 billion in funding to states and local governments to build out their charging infrastructure. Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected that the 500,000-outlet plan would cost $5 billion, so the Schumer plan could lead to a much bigger charging network. The plan has yet to be fully fleshed out, so it isn’t clear whether these different development models would change the amount drivers would pay to charge.
Beyond the accessibility benefits for EV drivers, the construction of new charging stations could, critically, also lead to a lot of new jobs. The EV charging station company EVgo estimates that one new job is created with every fast charging station built.
2) Bring back Cash for Clunkers
Biden has another proposal that could immediately benefit many Americans and rev up the EV rollout. In his Build Back Better plan, he pledged to give consumers rebates to swap old cars for more efficient ones.
This idea is right out of the Obama stimulus playbook. In the summer of 2009, Congress provided similar incentives to Americans to help the ailing auto industry and reduce transportation emissions. Participation in the program was overwhelming: Nearly 700,000 “clunkers” were traded in for cleaner cars, blowing through the $2.85 billion budget in just two months.
The modern version of the program would be different in a few key ways. Biden said his legislation would be based on Clean Cars for America, a plan Schumer announced in 2019. The Schumer plan is much more ambitious in scope: $392 billion would be allocated to replace 25 percent of US cars in 10 years. Notably, consumers would only receive vouchers to purchase electric, hybrid, or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, whereas the 2009 program only required the purchased vehicle to be slightly more efficient.
Participants would receive a voucher starting at $3,000 once they traded in their old car, and low-income buyers would get an additional $2,000 or a 20 percent discount on an eligible used car. This contrasts with current federal EV incentives, which are doled out as a tax credit that doesn’t mitigate the upfront cost.
The New York Times recently showed how some electric vehicles are already cheaper than the majority of gas-powered vehicles when you take the lifetime savings into account (EVs need less maintenance, and electricity is typically cheaper than gasoline). But the upfront cost remains higher in most cases — the International Council on Clean Transportation projects that the sticker price for shorter-range EVs will be comparable with conventional cars starting in 2024. So the Schumer plan could help families afford electric vehicles in the interim while also boosting sales.
When it was released in 2019, Schumer’s proposal got broad backing from environmental organizations, unions, and the major car companies, and he remains committed to it.
With GM now going electric:— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) January 30, 2021
Pay attention to my Clean Cars for America plan, a quick solution to getting combustion engines off the road.
I’m proud Clean Cars for America is part of President Biden’s plan to Build Back Better.https://t.co/1KySkG2Q93
The Obama stimulus experience showed such a program could be quick to implement, but left questions about its effectiveness at reducing emissions. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, the program only led to emission reductions equivalent to about a week’s worth of gas savings, largely because it allowed people to buy only slightly more efficient cars. The program did boost sales and savings for consumers, but the researchers concluded it wasn’t a particularly cost-effective way of creating jobs or saving carbon.
To make the new version of Cash for Clunkers good for consumers and the planet, lawmakers would, at a minimum, have to make sure that they stick with their proposal: only giving rebates to electric and hydrogen vehicles, which would cut emissions more substantially.
3) Reinstate a popular New Deal-era conservation jobs program
Alongside major infrastructure projects, Biden’s Build Back Better plan also proposed creating jobs directly through new government programs. Continuing the streak of alliterative acronyms, one of the ideas is to create a Civilian Climate Corps, drawing on the success of a New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, that employed people in response to the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The idea of reviving the program is popular across both parties, with 80 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans supporting it, according to polling conducted by Data for Progress in September.
According to the rough proposal outlined in Build Back Better, the new CCC would mirror the original, employing people to work in conservation jobs across the country — this time with a focus on climate change. The list of potential tasks includes improving the management of forests to reduce the rising threat of fires in the western US, restoring wetlands so they can help protect communities from floods, and planting millions of trees with a focus on urban neighborhoods that lack the shade needed in a rapidly warming world.
“Given the twin crises of a jobs crisis and environmental crisis that we are currently facing, something like a CCC, if done well, really could provide fantastic opportunities for the youth of our country,” said Mark Paul, an assistant professor of environmental economics at New College of Florida.
We’ll know more about the design of the program in the coming months. In his January 27 executive order on climate change, Biden instructed the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture departments to submit a fleshed-out strategy for the program in the next 90 days. He instructed the departments to make use of existing appropriations, but Paul said “existing funds are likely to be woefully insufficient to meet the actual needs of the planet and the youth.”
The CCC might get a boost from Congress. In September, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a bill that would channel $55.8 billion to employ 1 million people in a new CCC program over five years. That would bring the program into the realm of the New Deal CCC, which employed 3 million workers over its nine-year duration.
In some critical ways, the original CCC shouldn’t be a model for the new one. Paul pointed to its history of discrimination: It didn’t allow any women and ultimately segregated workers by race in the CCC camps.
For a more recent model, Biden’s first climate plan as a candidate (before Build Back Better) proposed retooling AmeriCorps, a federal program that provides participants with a stipend and education award to do public service work with organizations across the country. However, AmeriCorps’ prevailing stipend wouldn’t amount to a living wage, which Paul argued would be important for the CCC to advance equity. “I think what is crucial is that we don’t create poverty-level jobs and sell them as people giving back to their communities and accepting low wages in turn.”
Future climate action could hinge on the results of this bill
By March, the contours of the infrastructure bill should be emerging, revealing whether these initiatives and dozens of others will move forward and if they’ll be funded at a scale that will really make an impact.
In the process, the messaging wars around climate policy are bound to intensify. Republican lawmakers and members of the fossil fuel industry have already criticized Biden’s moves to block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and pause oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
Biden has tried to get in front of the “climate versus jobs” framing by instructing his administration to focus on creating a just transition. In his January 27 executive order, he committed to distributing 40 percent of the benefits from climate investments to disadvantaged communities. He also created a working group to support fossil fuel and power plant communities as the country transitions to renewables.
The Republican critiques also underscore the political importance of designing climate policy that contributes to the economic recovery, and messaging that clearly to the country. “One lesson from the Obama experience was the need to sell investments in the energy economy as about economic prosperity and quality of life improvements, not about emissions reductions,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser for the Progressive Policy Institute who previously served as director of communications for President Bill Clinton’s climate task force.
Whether people see and feel the benefits of this new hybrid jobs-climate policy may be critical to the future of climate action, because Democrats will be judged on the results in 2022, and the party will need public support for climate action well beyond that.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) described the stakes in a conversation with reporters in late January: “Everything we do has to address the climate crisis, and not just this year but for decades, and so whatever we do should be big and bold but also should not be viewed as final, because even the biggest, boldest bill will not be enough.”