After a brutal summer in which wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts were all front-page news, the need to take action on climate change has never been clearer. The sharp increase in climate-related disasters in recent years is irrefutable, but we still have time to avoid some of the worst impacts of a rapidly changing global climate, and protect bird species that are vulnerable to extinction in the process. It won’t be easy, but we know what we need to do: ensure that the price of emissions-intensive products reflects their true costs, protect and restore landscapes that can naturally capture carbon emissions while providing habitat to birds and other wildlife, and transition to 100% emissions-free energy as quickly as possible.
As we continue to work with members of Congress to pass the strongest possible legislation to confront our climate challenges, we must not lose sight of what we know to be winnable. Current technologies—like wind and solar power, battery storage, and energy efficient “smart” appliances—can get us close to our clean energy target by midcentury. But to get there faster, and with minimal impact to consumer electricity costs, will require improvements in the way we generate, transmit, store, and consume electricity. Market signals—such as an economy-wide price on carbon, or a clean energy standard—are needed to incentivize private sector investment in research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) of new energy technologies. And the federal government’s role in supporting these RDD&D efforts will need to be expanded.
Despite the current legislative rollercoaster that has sown uncertainty on some climate fronts, there is still good news to be found. There is bipartisan legislation moving through Congress that addresses many of Audubon’s environmental priorities and will also make important investments in clean energy, including:
- $500 million for grid-scale energy storage demonstration and pilot projects, to store large amounts of electricity from variable wind and solar power and reduce our reliance on fossil fuel-fired backup generation;
- $500 million for demonstration projects for wind, solar, and geothermal energy technologies on degraded mine lands—technologies that are already cost-competitive with new and existing fossil generation, and which can still be improved upon for both utility-scale and residential and commercial applications;
- $3.2 billion for advanced nuclear energy technologies, which hold the promise of greater safety and flexibility than conventional nuclear generation while producing less waste;
- $500 million for demonstration projects to reduce emissions from industrial processes, such as methods for capturing and utilizing waste heat from on-site combustion; and
- $9.5 billion for clean hydrogen research, which holds the promise of providing another off-ramp for our reliance on fossil fuels.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill is just a first step toward meeting our climate and energy innovation goals, but it is a necessary one. Without these investments, it will be difficult and expensive to get to 100% clean energy by 2035, a key milestone on our way to achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. Moreover, the clean energy tax credits proposed in companion legislation would create additional bang for the buck, by increasing demand for the kinds of technologies supported in the infrastructure bill. In the political debate over how quickly and aggressively to address the causes and impacts of climate change, innovation is one of the few bright spots. Now is the time to move past rhetoric to action.
We can’t simply innovate our way out of the climate crisis, but passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill will provide momentum that we can build upon in the coming years. As sustained federal and private investment leads to cheaper, cleaner electricity, the economic barriers preventing wider adoption of zero-emissions energy technologies will fall. Lower battery costs will make electric vehicles a more attractive option than gasoline- or diesel-powered cars and trucks, and lower solar and wind costs will make it more likely that those EVs draw power from a cleaner electric grid. Technologies and know-how for reducing industrial emissions can be exported to other countries facing similar dilemmas, leading to economic benefits at home and environmental and climate benefits for everyone.