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Opinion Biden’s climate summit is full of hot air

President Biden speaks during the climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House on Thursday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden’s climate summit on Thursday will predictably attract fawning headlines as world leaders trip over themselves to promise massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Less covered will be how extraordinarily difficult it will be to keep those promises.

Reducing global emissions is easier said than done because almost all human activity emits greenhouse gasses. If you go anywhere by plane, train, bus or car, your actions emit greenhouse gasses. Same goes for turning on lights, cooking food, or heating homes and offices. Burning fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal is what has been powering humankind’s climb out of poverty. Developed economies cannot simply switch on a dime.

Biden’s promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 is going to mean life changes for everyone. To see why, look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s summary of greenhouse gas emissions by sector. That accounting shows that 29 percent of total emissions from the United States comes from transportation, while a further 25 percent comes from electricity generation and 23 percent comes from industrial use. Dramatically reducing emissions in any one of these sectors would require wrenching, expensive change. Doing it in all three simultaneously requires more direct government activity and regulation than the country has seen in decades.

Take transportation. Reducing emissions in this sector is theoretically simple: Stop burning fossil fuels to power our vehicles. In practice, this means moving as quickly as possible to all-electric vehicles, which requires the retooling of automotive factories so they replace gas-powered internal combustion engine vehicles with battery-powered ones. This will take trillions of dollars of investment and will displace any firm that provides parts for internal combustion engines. It will also require the construction of massive numbers of electric charging stations and the retrofitting of homes to allow overnight charging from household electric outlets. That’s yet another massive and expensive undertaking.

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These changes in turn will wreak havoc on millions of families whose livelihoods are dependent upon the production, transportation and distribution of fossil fuels. Many of the 133,000 jobs in the gas station industry will go away, and many station owners will go bankrupt. Oil and gas extraction, mining and support activities for those activities employ 684,000 people. How many of those workers, or the 173,000 involved in petroleum refining, will still have their jobs after this?

And this doesn’t even consider the environmental harm that finding the materials needed to build lithium batteries will cause. Mining lithium uses huge amounts of water and can cause water and soil pollution. Batteries also use cobalt, which is mainly found in central Africa and can cause the same environmental damage that tearing up other pristine regions in search or oil or minerals creates.

The changes that will come from altering our electricity production will be as dramatic or moreso. Do you use natural gas to heat your home or cook your food? That’s going to have to change if we’re going green, which means massive retrofitting of homes to move to electric heat and cooking.

Moving away from big plants that burn coal or natural gas to generate electricity and toward other sources will also be expensive and wrenching. Solar or wind farms will have to be built, and new transmission lines will have to be laid. Communities that live off of local power plants will likely wither away, and many of the nearly 1.4 million people who work in the utility industry will have to change careers. And we haven’t even considered the fact that renewable energy will likely never generate 100 percent of our electricity. Keeping the current flowing through our wires means finding a new, clean source of energy that doesn’t rely on wind or the lack of cloud cover to create electricity. Are Americans comfortable with relying more on nuclear power plants?

These are only a few of the massive challenges the United States will face if it is serious about dramatically reducing greenhouse emissions. There’s a reason Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) Green New Deal says saving the planet will require “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II.” It will. Meeting Biden’s goals will ultimately require Americans to endure wartime-level economic planning and intervention for years — perhaps decades. It’s doubtful Americans are willing to pay that price, especially when they learn that China, which emits more greenhouse gasses than the United States and the European Union combined, still plans to increase its emissions in the coming years. (Chinese President Xi Jinping promised his country’s emissions will “peak” before 2030.)

Politicians today will emit a lot of hot air about addressing climate change. Watch voters’ temperatures rise once they realize how much those words will cost.

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