Climate

What Joe Biden declaring a climate emergency would mean for tech

The Senate has once again failed to pass climate legislation. But the president has sweeping powers that could kickstart the clean energy revolution. He just needs to use them.

President Joe Biden points while wearing sunglasses and a blue shirt.

President Biden isn't ready to declare a climate emergency yet, but doing so would unlock serious powers.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced a suite of climate policies after the Senate basically left the Build Back Better agenda for dead. Not among them: declaring a climate emergency.

While the administration hasn't ruled out doing so in the future, for now the vast powers that could reshape the clean energy landscape will remain under lock and key. But should Biden decide to call climate change what it is — an emergency — and tap into those powers, it could have far-reaching ramifications for the tech industry (and society, of course).

We've arrived at this place because Sen. Joe Manchin and 50 Senate Republicans stonewalled Biden's climate legislative agenda. Manchin has now killed the Build Back Better Act twice. While he's left the door cracked to considering its climate pieces in September after seeing one more inflation report, the odds of the biggest recipient of fossil fuel money in Congress who also rakes in millions from his various coal holdings changing his mind, even if inflation improves, are slim. That a growing number of senators, including Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, are calling for Biden to use his authority to declare a climate emergency should also make it clear where things stand.

A climate emergency declaration could go a couple of ways. Biden could invoke narrower emergency powers, similar to what he did with the Defense Production Act and heat pumps, solar panels and critical minerals earlier this year. But he could also swing much bigger.

"He has both emergency and ordinary executive powers," Jean Su, a senior attorney and energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Protocol. "Under a symbolic climate emergency declaration, he could actually map out a plan that includes both and get the best bang for an executive action buck."

Su was a lead author on a report that lays out a number of actions Biden could take. Among them are moves that would close the carbon pollution spigot by curtailing fossil fuel production and leasing on federal lands. But Biden could also direct a firehose of money at clean energy tech and bring together major players in the tech industry as partners in planning and purchasing.

On the money side, it may seem like the administration's hands are tied given that the Defense Production Act has a limited budget of $545 million, according to Bloomberg, and Biden has already tapped it for funding the aforementioned climate tech as well as dealing with the baby formula shortage. The solar industry's trade group called it a "down payment" at a time when we need to be buying the whole house in cash. Congress could kick more money to the DPA, but Su said that's not the only route the administration has at its disposal. Agencies can transfer money to the DPA, and Su said the $650 billion federal procurement budget could be a huge tool to wield in a climate emergency.

The administration has already committed to cutting the government's emissions 65% by 2030 and purchasing all zero-emissions light-duty vehicles by 2027. Following through on that with the budget and the DPA could use the government's massive purchasing power to buy clean energy, electric vehicles and energy-saving technology for buildings that would in turn bring down the cost for people across the country.

The Stafford Act, which gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency its walking orders, is another key tool Biden could employ. Right now, FEMA can implement resiliency projects before disaster hits and help build places back after. On the build-back front, though, the agency doesn't build back better. It builds back the same, meaning if a fossil fuel power plant gets knocked out by a hurricane, FEMA will spend millions rebuilding infrastructure that worsens the climate crisis.

Fixing that glaring oversight and allowing FEMA to rebuild energy infrastructure that's made for the 21st century — wind and solar farms, battery storage and rooftop and community solar — would suddenly free up billions more in funding for the clean energy transition. Given that poor communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate disasters and spend an outsize portion of their money on energy bills, a FEMA that's focused on building back a clean energy system and efficient homes could also address huge environmental injustices.

The federal government by itself, let alone just the executive branch, isn't enough to get climate tech out in the wild. "I think this is a really key time for partnerships to be formed," Su said. "There are ways that we can also use the DPA to be partnered with private capital."

The tech industry could be a natural partner for the administration to do just that. Many tech companies have set aggressive climate goals and are already large purchasers of renewable energy. But a single company working toward net zero in a vacuum is about as useful as one person trying to row a cruise ship across the ocean.

The DPA allows the president to bring major players to the table to create a plan of action in a moment of crisis. Tech companies could bring their climate plans — the best of which contain yearly milestones for emissions reductions — and their finances to said table and chart a course.

"So can Google, can Apple, can they actually be the purchasing partners that the federal government can't be towards the new solar panels that they obviously need?" Su said, as one example of how the planning process could work.

There's already precedent for this: The Biden administration and a number of tech companies are members of the First Movers Coalition, which is trying to bring down the cost of carbon dioxide removal, green steel and other still-costly technologies and materials.

Though to truly align the administration's and tech companies' goals, Su said, labor and frontline communities should also be part of the planning process. The Biden administration has promised that 40% of all federal funding for climate and energy will be used to benefit environmental justice communities and talked up its support of the labor movement. Under the banner of a climate emergency, it's possible to imagine a company like, say, Amazon committing to buying a tranche of electric delivery vehicles and organized labor playing a role in fulfilling that order, or disadvantaged communities in Florida receiving grants to install rooftop solar.

Su said that with legislation dead, meeting the Biden administration's climate target will require more creative thinking and urgency than we've seen so far. But, she said, that's no reason not to "move as fast as possible, especially before midterms so we can see some progress."

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