The bipartisan, $900 billion Covid-19 relief bill passed by Congress on Monday night is more than a much-needed if somewhat poorly designed financial lifeline for Americans hit hard by the pandemic. The bill — which President Trump is expected to sign shortly — also contains a slew of provisions and tens of billions in funding meant to fight climate change and accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune calls the bill’s strong climate focus “a light in the darkness” coming after four years of Trump administration attacks on environmental protections. Brune says he takes some solace from the fact that the relief bill passed with the support of Democratic and Republican lawmakers. “It remains to be seen if this is a one-off, but if it’s not a one-off and Republican senators from Wyoming and Louisiana can embrace legislation that cuts pollution and creates clean-energy jobs, that bodes well for the future,” Brune tells Rolling Stone.
According to the Washington Post, the Covid relief bill includes $35 billion in new funding for various renewable energy initiatives, including $4 billion for the research and development of wind, solar, and geothermal; $1.7 billion to expand access to renewables to low-income Americans; and $2.6 billion for the Energy Department’s sustainable transportation project. One environmental advocate told the Post the relief bill was “perhaps the most significant climate legislation Congress has ever passed.”
The bill also “includes key language on the ‘sense of Congress’ that the Energy Department must prioritize funding for research to power the United States with 100 percent ‘clean, renewable, or zero-emission energy sources,’ ” the Post reported. That commitment aligns with Democratic proposals to get the U.S. to a point of net-zero emissions, a goal shared by other nations in the fight against the climate crisis.
But perhaps the biggest provision in the bill is one that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to begin to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used in air conditioners found in cars, homes, and other cooling systems. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, “HFCs are incredibly potent greenhouse gases; their global warming potential (GWP) is thousands of times that of carbon dioxide. This means that emitting a kilogram of an HFC contributes to climate change as much as a ton or more of carbon dioxide.” HFCs make up a smaller percentage of emitted greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, but they’re the fastest growing class of greenhouse gases in the world, the NRDC says.
If the new Covid-19 relief bill becomes law, the EPA will have the ability to phase out the use of HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years. The deal also paves the way for the U.S. to join the Kigali Amendment, an international agreement to slash HFCs by 80 percent or more by 2050. So far, some of the world’s largest emitters, including the U.S., India, and China, have not signed onto the Kigali Amendment, but the U.S.’s entry could pressure those other major nations into signing on.
In the global battle to keep the planet’s warming under 2 degrees Celsius, phasing out HFCs could potentially shave 0.5 degrees off of that warming, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.
Climate victories have been scant in the past decade in Washington. President Obama’s push for cap-and-trade legislation fell short in the U.S. Senate in 2010. The Obama administration used executive authority to regulate greenhouse gases and pollution from power plants and entered the U.S. into the landmark Paris climate accord, but Trump did his best to unwind Obama’s climate record, including by exiting the Paris accord. But House Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi have succeeded on several occasions at including vital funding and tax credits for renewable energy industries into must-pass spending bills and other major pieces of legislation.
President-elect Joe Biden has said he will re-enter the U.S. in the Paris accord and outlined an ambitious $2 trillion climate plan over the summer. With the Covid-19 relief package, he is set to enter office with some forward momentum on tackling the existential crisis of our lifetimes.