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Climate change

Biden calls for major investments into carbon removal tech

The president-elect’s transition plan also recommends research and development funding for batteries, renewable hydrogen and advanced nuclear.
November 9, 2020
biden and harris on stage delaware
biden and harris on stage delaware
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

President-elect Joe Biden wasted little time setting a new tone on climate change.

On Sunday, one day after major outlets called the presidential election for the former vice president, the Biden-Harris transition team released documents laying out the incoming administration’s early priorities, including a blueprint for “tackling the climate crisis.

Most of the details were drawn directly from Biden’s sweeping campaign climate plan, which would dedicate $1.7 trillion to overhaul energy, transportation, agriculture, and other sectors. But the list of areas in which Biden hopes to make “far-reaching investments” includes at least one new term: negative-emissions technologies.

That phrase encompasses a number of approaches for drawing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. These can include carbon-sucking machines that companies like Climeworks and Carbon Engineering are developing; methods to speed up natural processes through which minerals capture and lock away carbon; and schemes that rely on plants to absorb carbon dioxide, then convert them into fuel sources and capture any resulting emissions (a process known as “bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration”).

Scientists say that removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide per year by midcentury will be essential for preventing very dangerous levels of global warming.

Biden’s earlier plan did mention reforestation and agricultural practices that could help to increase carbon in soil. The plan also highlighted the need to accelerate development and deployment of “carbon capture, use, and storage,” which generally refers to preventing the release of emissions from power plants and factories (though some took it to also mean negative emissions).

(Carbon capture, use, and storage wasn’t mentioned in the new Biden-Harris climate transition document.)

Other areas where the Biden-Harris administration wants to provide more research and development funding include:

  • Battery storage. Driving down costs and increasing the duration of energy storage technologies is crucial to make electric vehicles more affordable and competitive, and to allow fluctuating renewable sources like solar and wind to generate far more of the electricity on the grid.
  • Renewable hydrogen. Developing cheaper ways of producing clean forms of hydrogen could provide promising paths to cutting emissions from aviation, shipping, fertilizer production, and long-duration storage on the grid.
  • Advanced nuclear. A number of research groups and startups are developing new types of nuclear reactors that promise to be smaller, safer, and cheaper.  
  • Building materials. This could include developing new ways to produce industrial heat, which usually relies on burning fossil fuels, in order to clean up the production of steel, concrete, and other construction materials.

Policy observers believe that there could be opportunities to incorporate significant research and development funding for clean energy in upcoming economic stimulus packages, noting that such measures have bipartisan support. Indeed, Congress largely beat back the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to slash federal investments in these areas during the last four years.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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