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The Climate 202

Carbon removal is moving full steam ahead. So is climate change.

The Climate 202

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Good morning! Climate 202 researcher Vanessa Montalbano is back again writing today’s newsletter. 

👀 What we're watching: A package of six spending bills that passed 220-207 in the House on Wednesday. The funding targets issues such as decarbonization of the power grid and cleaning up water and air pollution. But first:

Carbon removal is moving full steam ahead. So is climate change.

On Wednesday, the Department of Energy hosted the Carbon Negative Shot Summit, where the agency explored low-cost, clean and innovative ways to store huge amounts of carbon as the nation tries to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Energy has roughly $6 billion to use from the bipartisan infrastructure law to invest in carbon removal technology. But with the clock ticking on global warming, there's a lot of research and development the agency must do before it can bring the newborn industry to scale in an equitable way. 

Officials attending the summit — which included Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Jigar Shah, the director of the Loan Programs Office at Energy, and Ko Barrett, the senior adviser for climate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association — said that such efforts would require collaboration between the federal and state governments as well as with environmental justice community members, international partners and the private sector. 

“Carbon dioxide removal is key to restoring our climate,” Granholm said during her opening remarks. “So these extreme weather events don't just keep getting worse and so our communities can be safer and healthier.” 

According to Granholm, the Biden administration’s priority continues to be to prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere in the first place, emphasizing that new investments in the technology are no excuse to maintain reliance on fossil fuels or to slow down the nation's transition to renewable energy. 

Wednesday’s summit marked the third in the agency’s Energy Earthshots Initiative, a program meant to accelerate affordable and reliable clean energy technologies within the next decade that was introduced at COP26 last year. (A second one focused on carbon removal is expected to take place later this year.)

And although some environmentalists have criticized carbon capture as being ineffective, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that simply reaching net-zero emissions would not be enough to avert the catastrophic warming that the planet is hurtling toward. Instead, the authors wrote that carbon removal technology is crucial for pulling legacy pollution out of the air and reversing some of the effects of climate change. 

As for the current state of carbon removal infrastructure, bipartisan leaders can agree that the space is burgeoning — it just needs to be tapped into quickly and responsibly. 

“These polluting technologies of today don’t go away overnight,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) told The Climate 202 ahead of his remarks at the summit. “We should do everything we can to make those processes cleaner and less climate polluting while those technologies are still in use, even as we try to replace them.” 

What about reconciliation?

The Energy Department is also set on boosting approaches that would remove gigatons of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere for less than $100 per net metric ton of carbon. (According to Energy, 1 gigaton of carbon is equivalent to the annual emissions produced by about 250 million vehicles.) Without bringing down the cost, the agency said that not only would the industry remain inaccessible, but it would also be difficult for it to go to scale. 

But as it stands, there is no market price on carbon. “The fact that it’s free to pollute makes it very hard to reward innovations that reduce that pollution,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told The Climate 202, arguing that without a proper price, companies would not be incentivized to capture the carbon unless they are paid for it — or the federal government sets out to regulate emissions. 

Whitehouse explained that one route could be an expansion of 45Q, or a tax credit originally under the 2008 Energy Improvement and Extension Act that provides a subsidy for capturing carbon and storing it underground. 

When asked about the prospects of new funding opportunities for carbon removal in light of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) torpedoing Senate Democrats’ climate deal, Peters said that “everything’s harder.” 

“Right now we have to fund basic research, that’s what the government has always done when there’s not a market for something.” Peters said. “I hope that some of that would have been made possible by the reconciliation package, and I don't want to give up on that, but if it's not, we'll have to do that through appropriations.” 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is taking executive action to address extreme heat and accelerate offshore wind without Congress (more on that below). 

“The good news on climate is that the executive branch is now unbound from all of the cautions it felt were necessary to support the reconciliation process,” Whitehouse said. “We have yet to see anything that looks like real robust executive action in America, and what President Biden could begin to accomplish I think would be pretty exciting for people.”

Pressure points

Biden announces executive actions on climate, with more to come

President Biden on Wednesday announced new steps to tackle global warming, saying “this is an emergency and I will look at it that way” while delivering remarks on a visit to Somerset, Mass., Yasmeen Abutaleb, Tony Romm and Anna Phillips report for The Washington Post. 

But Biden stopped short of issuing a formal climate emergency, which Democrats and environmental groups have been calling for since Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) stalled negotiations on a major climate spending package. 

Instead, he promised a more robust response, pledging to use his executive power “to turn these words into formal, official government actions,” if Congress failed to act. He announced a limited set of new policies, including plans to direct funds to communities facing extreme heat and to open more than 700,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico to the wind industry. 

Still, many climate activists made clear that they feel Biden is not doing enough of what is needed in the face of an increasingly dire threat to the planet, and that the pledges have a far narrower scope than the $500 billion that Democrats initially sought as part of their broader Build Back Better social spending plan.

“We cannot afford any more delay on meaningful climate action. The climate crisis isn’t on our doorstep, it’s blown the door clear off,” said Melinda Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club. “President Biden must exercise his authority by using the full power of the federal government to take swift, specific and significant actions that treat climate change as the crisis it is.”

Why roads, runways and railways warp in extreme heat

As an unprecedented heat wave expands across Europe and parts of the United States, critical infrastructure is falling apart, Allyson Chiu reports for The Washington Post.

The melted roads and warped train tracks are yet another reminder of the need to adjust quickly to a warming planet, experts say, warning that with increased emissions this is only going to get worse. 

“When reality and future conditions start shifting away from what was used in the design, our infrastructure becomes more prone to failure and may also suffer from a reduced service life,” Amit Bhasin, a professor and director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin wrote in an email.

Roads, runways and railways are among the most vulnerable to heat. In particular, asphalt is at risk of a reduced life span when it is hot because it prompts the compound to soften and age faster. 

While small modifications can be made to reduce the chances of negative effects from the heat, experts say that broader changes to infrastructure design are necessary to adapt to more frequent and extreme weather events.

Agency alert

Postal Service will make 40% of its new trucks electric, up from 10%

The U.S. Postal Service on Wednesday signaled that it is willing to electrify at least 40 percent of its new delivery trucks set to hit the streets in 2023, bringing the agency closer to conforming with President Biden’s ambitious climate goal of making the entire federal fleet battery-powered by 2035, Jacob Bogage reports for The Post.

The agency had originally planned to purchase up to 165,000 vehicles from Oshkosh Defense, of which 10 percent would have been electric. But now, it will acquire 50,000 delivery trucks from Oshkosh, half of which will be zero emissions. It will also buy 34,500 commercially available vehicles, with enough electric models to make 4 in 10 trucks in its delivery fleet electric. 

The announcement, hailed by climate activists as a major step toward reducing the federal environmental footprint, comes after 16 states, the District of Columbia and four of the nation’s top climate groups sued the Postal Service to prevent the original purchase plan that included mostly gas-guzzling trucks, locking in planet warming emissions for decades. 

“The Postal Service anticipates evaluating and procuring vehicles over shorter time periods to be more responsive to its evolving operational strategy, technology improvements, and changing market conditions, including the expected increased availability of [electric vehicle] options in the future,” the agency said in a statement announcing the plan.

On the Hill

Friends of the Earth Action announces last of 2022 endorsements

Friends of the Earth Action, an organization that pushes for climate-friendly policy, on Tuesday released its final round of endorsements for the 2022 primary election cycle. 

“With control of Congress in the balance, now is the time to elect bold leaders who will fight for people, communities and the environment,” said Ariel Moger, FOE’s government and political affairs manager. “We’re proud to endorse these ambitious progressives who will challenge the status quo and prioritize people and the planet over corporate interests.” 

The organization threw support behind the following nine candidates: 

  • Maxwell Frost for Florida’s 10th District
  • Huwaida Arraf for Michigan’s 10th District
  • Amane Badhasso for Minnesota’s 4th District
  • Melanie D’Arrigo for New York’s 3rd District
  • Mondaire Jones for New York’s 10th District
  • Alessandra Biaggi for New York’s 17th District
  • David Segal for Rhode Island’s 2nd District
  • Jason Call for Washington’s 2nd District
  • Stephanie Gallardo for Washington’s 9th District

In the atmosphere

Viral

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