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Stalled 'Build Back Better' package threatens U.S. climate influence

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 31 January 2022 11:18 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden walks past solar panels while touring the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative in Plymouth, New Hampshire, U.S., June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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President Biden's $2 trillion climate and social spending package is struggling to advance, potentially hurting policy action abroad and at home

• Some $500 billion in funding stalled in U.S. Congress

• Congressman says bill's failure could dent COP27 talks

• World must pick up pace on climate action - Kerry

By David Sherfinski

WASHINGTON, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Failure to push Joe Biden's signature climate legislation through Congress could jeopardize Washington's influence in the fight against global warming and open the door for China and other nations to backslide, lawmakers and activists say.

The White House is battling to salvage some $500 billion in climate funding measures contained in Biden's stalled "Build Back Better" spending bill at the start of another crucial year for international climate action.

"We essentially promised the world we were going to do this," said U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman of California. "If we go (to COP27) empty-handed, it's potentially lights out for climate action," referring to U.N. talks due to be held in November.

The legislative wrangling is being closely watched by countries including China, currently the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter, climate policy analysts said.

Failure by Washington to make good on commitments to cut emissions and other promises contained in the legislation could affect climate action by Beijing despite a bilateral deal last year, they said.

"There will be a direct impact ... on China's appetite to embrace climate action," said Li Shuo, senior global policy advisor at Greenpeace East Asia.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged that India will hit net zero emissions by 2070, but the country continues to be intensely protective of its coal industry.

The U.S. stall-out highlights broader global cost challenges in the climate mitigation fight, said Vaibhav Chaturvedi, fellow at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a research group in New Delhi.

"This development would have significant negative implications for the availability of climate finance for pushing renewable energy in the developing world," he said.

Closer to home, U.S. trade cooperation with Canada that could help both countries develop their electric vehicle industries could also be affected, said Eddy Perez from Climate Action Network Canada, an advocacy coalition.

"The U.S. can't go around the world telling others to increase their climate action if they ... don't clean up their house first," he said.


Soon after he was sworn in, Biden rejoined the 2015 Paris Agreement following the withdrawal led by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and has launched numerous climate-related policies during his year-plus in office.

The White House defended Biden's record on climate change, pointing to his "whole-of-government" approach and highlighting measures such as building electric vehicle infrastructure and fast-tracking clean energy projects.

"The President set an ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas pollution ... by 50-52% in 2030, empowering the U.S. to create good jobs and improve public health ... while rallying the world to make their own bold contributions," an official said by email.

But negotiations in the U.S. Congress over the multibillion-dollar plan for clean energy investments and tax credits have stalled over objections from U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat who represents coal-rich West Virginia.

Mid-term elections, due in November, could bring further trouble for Biden's climate agenda, incentivizing Democrats to salvage as much as possible before the elections.

Republicans, who oppose his polices on global warming, look set to retake control of at least one chamber of Congress, according to political analysts.

"That will really have a big impact on climate work internationally," Isabella Lovin, a former Swedish environment and climate minister, said at a recent event.

The administration has said the stalled bill is not the only way of reaching the president's emissions targets, which experts say are needed to help limit global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the lower target of the Paris accord.

Congress passed a $1 trillion-plus infrastructure package last year that included money for initiatives such as electric vehicle charging stations, for example.

A State Department spokesperson said U.S. leadership has led to initiatives like a global pledge to cut methane emissions and the U.S.-China accord, and that 2021's COP26 talks represented the "largest raising of ambition in the history of the global climate fight".

But independent analyses have shown it will likely take additional congressional legislation, plus further action from Biden, U.S. states and the private sector, to hit the 2030 target.


Criss-crossing the globe to push for collective action, Biden's own special climate envoy, John Kerry, has called for faster emissions-cutting since the COP26 talks in Glasgow.

"Bottom line: Glasgow was a huge step forward," Kerry said at a World Economic Forum event this month. "But we also know no one is moving fast enough. The world has to really pick up the pace."

While no one doubts Biden's commitment to the issue, the legislative gridlock is damaging when time is of the essence, said Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

"The inability to put in place an implementation plan around the ambition announced by the administration is massively distracting," Kyte said.

"It is undoubtedly sub-optimal if the largest power in the world isn't able to be at the front of the line, as it were."


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(Reporting by David Sherfinski @dsherfinski. Editing by Helen Popper and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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