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MIT Technology Review

What the GOP’s proposed climate policies would, and wouldn’t, do

And why it’s notable that Republicans are now talking about climate change at all.

January 21, 2020
An evergreen forest.An evergreen forest.
An evergreen forest.
Photo by Dave Michuda on Unsplash

Republicans in the US House of Representatives are doing something once nearly unthinkable: proposing a suite of policies to address climate change.

The measures don’t go nearly far enough. But they do mark a shift in the rhetoric on the right, and may provide a small opening for pushing through at least some climate policies in this hyper-partisan era.

According to Axios, the proposals include planting large numbers of trees to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere; doubling federal funds for energy research and development; reducing tax rates for companies exporting clean energy technology; and expanding the so-called 45Q tax credit for companies removing and storing carbon dioxide from facilities or the atmosphere.

But these business-friendly proposals, coordinated by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, would specifically avoid more aggressive measures like emissions reduction mandates or taxes on carbon pollution. And they’d fall far short of the sweeping economic and regulatory overhaul envisioned by Democrats championing the Green New Deal.

The policies themselves are a bit of a mixed bag:

  • Planting trees can help remove carbon dioxide from the air. But you need to add far more than you’re cutting down to actually achieve significant reductions, and the process of planting and caring for them produces emissions as well. In addition, years of progress can be wiped out by major forest fires, bark beetle infestations, and other events that send the carbon dioxide back into the air.
  • A larger and permanent tax credit for companies developing ways to capture and store carbon dioxide—either before it leaves power plants or factories, or once it’s in the air—could help make it more affordable to retrofit facilities with carbon capture systems. It could also provide crucial support for the nascent direct-air-capture industry, which is developing machines that can suck CO2 out of the air. The technology works but is very expensive today.
  • Early-stage research and development funding is crucial at a time when the world is still lacking some of the critical tools to address climate change, including cheaper and better grid storage, clean aviation, and low-carbon cement and steel. But the bigger need at this stage is for policies and funding to push existing clean technologies into the marketplace.
  • It is a good idea to do whatever we can to encourage businesses to export clean energy technologies to poor countries at lower costs. Finding ways to help developing nations build out their energy infrastructure without depending heavily on fossil fuels is essential for tackling climate emissions, as that’s where much of world’s energy consumption growth will occur in the coming decades. But it’ll require far more than tax incentives to make that happen.
  • Another part of the Republican proposal includes removing plastics from the environment and improving recycling technologies. Again, that’s fine, but these aren’t major levers for addressing climate change.

In some ways, the mere fact that a growing number of elected Republicans feel compelled to roll out any climate-related policies is a sign of minor progress. It suggests it’s becoming bad politics to continue insisting that human-driven climate change isn’t real or a problem that needs to be addressed. Publicly admitting as much was considered political suicide for Republicans a few years ago (just ask Bob Inglis).

But on the whole, these policies are half measures that fail to recognize the extent of the climate dangers we face, and how radically and rapidly we now need to transform our systems to avoid catastrophic levels of warming.