While the prospects for a bitterly divided Congress to produce further ambitious climate legislation are almost nonexistent, newly named Republican leaders of key House committees say they want to help bring the U.S. closer to its emissions goal.
“There’s no question that human activities are causing increased carbon in the atmosphere,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas and the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “But the question is, what are we going to do to get the carbon out?”
Westerman said he takes climate change seriously and believes action is possible in the current Congress. “We can come together to do what’s right and try to actually follow the science,” he said.
The pre-existing House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis was not renewed in the now Republican-led chamber, leaving responsibility for the causes and consequences of climate change with the likes of Westerman’s committee and others.
Westerman, an engineer with a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University, told Inside Climate News that he strongly supports practices—such as reforestation—that remove existing emissions from the atmosphere.
Westerman also expressed support for permitting reforms that expedite the process of building new energy infrastructure. The reforms would speed up renewable energy projects like improvements to hydroelectric dams and solar farms, but they would also accelerate construction of fossil fuel-intensive projects, like cross-country oil and gas pipelines.
He shares that goal with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“Senator Manchin and I both support permitting reforms, though we would have come together on what those permitting reforms look like. And I certainly want to work with him on that. I think there’s others that we can work [with] on this thing as well,” Westerman said.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-Wash.), the new chairwoman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has also expressed concern for the climate crisis.
“Clearly, the climate is changing, and global industrial activity is a contributing factor. Humans must play a role in reducing carbon emissions and being good stewards of our natural resources,” her House website says.
She supports the further development of hydropower, which is a large industry in her home state. Washington generated more electricity from hydropower than any other state in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But House Republicans’ legislative priorities are likely not aggressive enough to help the U.S. meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, according to Damon Matthews, a climate science and sustainability researcher at Concordia University in Montreal.
With U.S. emissions ticking up by 1.3 percent in 2022, according to a new study by the Rhodium Group, an energy and research consulting firm, meeting the 2030 emissions goal would require a massive effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. has only achieved 15.5 percent reductions so far, according to the study.
Of the world’s 10 biggest emitters, the U.S. recently ranked last in progress toward self-imposed climate goals set under the Paris Agreement, according to an Inside Climate News analysis of data from the World Bank and Our World in Data.
Experts think the Inflation Reduction Act will accelerate its progress, but they doubt the bill will get the country to a 50 percent reduction in time.
For his part, President Joe Biden told world leaders in November that the U.S. would meet its international commitment. “Today I can stand here as President of the United States of America and say, with confidence, the United States will meet its emissions targets by 2030,” he said in a speech to the 27th U.N. climate summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
Matthews told Inside Climate that legislative priorities favored by Westerman and other House Republicans that focus on carbon removal rather than emissions reduction, like reforestation, are “just a distraction from what actually needs to be done.”
“If we were to halt all deforestation globally, in the Amazon, Indonesia, all over the U.S. … we would at best drop emissions by 10 percent,” he said. To meet the 2030 target, dependence on fossil fuels needs to be addressed. These account for 90 percent of global emissions.
Decarbonizing the energy sector would be a more effective step for Congress, according to Matthews.
Westerman does not intend to pursue full decarbonization of the U.S. energy sector during the 118th Congress. He supports a so-called “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that includes renewables as well as domestic production of fossil fuels where environmental standards can be managed.
“Coal, oil and natural gas still play a huge part of the energy portfolio and they’re not going away anytime soon,” he said.
Other lawmakers, including Manchin, share Westerman’s view. Legislation passed in the previous Congress, including the Inflation Reduction Act, included carve-outs that promise expedited permitting for projects that use fossil fuels, rather than just renewables.
“Regulatory overreach that destroys America’s energy independence and economic competitiveness is not the answer and is not necessary to reduce our emissions,” said a spokesperson for Rep. Rogers. “Over the last decade we outpaced the emissions reduction projections from Waxman-Markey [a failed 2009 House bill focused on clean energy] by embracing natural gas and technological innovations that decreased emissions, brought down costs, and increased economic growth.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), chairman of the Committee on Financial Services, plans to scrutinize the Securities and Exchange Committee (SEC) and its proposed climate-risk disclosure rules, which he considers part of a “far-left social agenda.”
McHenry has said he sees climate change as a threat but does not think the SEC should be making climate policy. “The SEC should focus on its core mission—protecting investors; maintaining fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and facilitating capital formation,” he has said.
Alfredo Rivera, the new Rhodium report co-author, acknowledged the reality that fossil fuels are a necessary part of the U.S. economy. He noted that the already present effects of climate change make it harder for the U.S. to move away from reliable, albeit polluting, energy sources like coal to heat and cool homes during extreme weather.
However, as the nation approaches 2030, this continued reliance on fossil fuels will make it incredibly difficult for the U.S. to meet its emissions reduction target. “What we see is that the U.S. continues to fail to position itself for a post fossil fuel world,” Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said.
The Elusive Paris Goal
As part of its pathway to 2030, the U.S. has an interim 2025 target of emissions reductions of 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels. The current 15.5 percent reduction is well behind that target, according to the Rhodium Group’s report.
The U.S.’s “lack of progress against its inadequate target speaks volumes about the seriousness with which the U.S. is actually responding to the realities of the climate emergency,” Muffett said.
The 2030 target, which was renewed by the Biden administration in 2021, fulfills the country’s goal-setting obligations under the Paris Agreement. The 194 parties to the treaty are required to set goals to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
These targets are self-imposed and vary significantly between nations, making them difficult to compare.
Countries with developed economies have pledged to reduce their emissions. Countries with developing economies, by contrast, have pledged to become less dependent on fossil fuels, but not necessarily achieve emissions reductions by 2030, due to continued large-scale population or economic growth.
Additionally, countries choose their own benchmark year for emissions reductions, which they define in different ways.
For example, China has pledged to lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60 percent to 65 percent from its 2005 level. Meanwhile, Japan aims to reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by 46 percent in fiscal year 2030 from its 2013 levels.
These targets do not allow for apples to apples comparisons. However, annual emissions data does demonstrate that the U.S. lags behind other major players in adhering to its own emissions reduction target.
In 2019, the last year that comprehensive global greenhouse gas emissions data was published, the U.S. ranked last among the world’s top 10 biggest emitters in progress toward its own self-imposed target.
The situation has evolved since 2019, particularly given pandemic-induced societal and economic disruptions, but not by much. U.S. emissions have returned to near pre-pandemic levels.
As the Rhodium Group’s report shows, the U.S. still has a long way to go to meet its 2030 target.
“If you were to trace a direct line [from 2022 emissions] to the 50 percent reduction in 2030, the U.S. will need to reduce emissions 5 to 7 percent every year,” said Rivera.
Those reductions will not be easy to achieve. For context, U.S. emissions decreased by 10 percent in 2020, a year marked by a sharp decline in economic activity due to the pandemic.
“That means we would need to reduce emissions by half of what we saw during the pandemic, every year,” Rivera added.
The pace of progress is expected to increase thanks to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. This landmark legislation will, in a best-case scenario, enable a 42 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 by 2030, according to a Rhodium Group report released last year.
But that still leaves an additional 8 percent to 10 percent of emissions—a significant portion of the U.S. goal—unaccounted for. “We need much more action if we want to reach the 50 percent reduction,” Rivera said. The Inflation Reduction Act “is just a piece of the pie.”
Still, Rivera remains optimistic that the 2030 target is within reach. He emphasized that multiple branches of government can take steps to achieve the goal. For example, many state and city governments are already working to decarbonize their transportation sectors at a quicker rate than expected, he said.
At a federal level, decisions by the Biden administration on regulatory policy and executive action could also contribute to reductions, though such policies could be reversed by the next presidential administration.
Legislative action, by contrast, is an avenue for more permanent changes to U.S. climate policy and robust investments toward emissions reduction.
It’s unlikely that the bitterly split Congress will be able to pass any dramatic climate legislation in the next two years. But Westerman and other House Republicans, fresh off regaining a slim majority in the chamber, said they are optimistic about their climate agenda.
What if the US Doesn’t Meet Its 2030 Target?
A U.S. failure to meet its 2030 target, given its emissions profile, would be a substantial setback under the Paris Agreement.
The U.S. contributed 14 percent of global emissions in 2021, and has released 20 percent of all global emissions since 1850. China, as the next largest emitter, released 31 percent of global emissions in 2021, but is responsible for only 11 percent of emissions since 1850.
The Paris Agreement does not impose any legal consequences on parties that fail to meet their self-imposed targets. But there will be practical consequences, according to Muffett.
“The practical consequences are the consequences we are seeing all around us, and the consequences are continuing to accelerate with each passing year,” Muffett said.