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Climate change

Here’s Biden’s plan to reboot climate innovation

It includes developing cheaper and better ways to capture carbon emissions or draw them out of the atmosphere.

February 11, 2021
President Biden
President Biden
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The Biden administration announced its third major climate effort on Thursday, February 11, rolling out initiatives to accelerate innovation in clean energy and climate technology.

The White House has formed a working group to help set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate (ARPA-C), which Biden pledged to create during the campaign. Its mission will be to accelerate progress in tough technical areas, likely including technologies that can capture, remove, and store carbon dioxide as well as heating and cooling products that don’t rely on highly potent greenhouse gases.

In addition, the Department of Energy plans to provide $100 million in funding for low-carbon energy projects through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a group funded in the first Obama administration to support clean energy technologies that aren’t far enough along to form businesses or attract traditional venture capital.

The move could help revitalize a favorite target of the Trump administration, which repeatedly tried to eliminate ARPA-E’s budget during the last four years. Congress, however, consistently maintained or even slightly raised its funding.

More federal money for research and development promises to drive down the cost of clean technologies, which makes it cheaper and more politically feasible to combat rising climate risks in the US and beyond.

But some energy observers are confused about why the administration wants to expend political capital trying to set up and fund a new research agency rather than focusing on boosting capital for existing programs. It took years for Congress to appropriate money for ARPA-E, which was authorized under George W. Bush but wasn’t funded until Obama pushed through the Recovery Act in 2009. The precise boundaries between the two ARPAs aren’t entirely clear either.

ARPA-E is primarily focused on “transformational low-carbon energy technologies,” while ARPA-C will likely take on a larger suite of climate-related tools, at least judging from Biden’s energy plan announced during the campaign.

Its expected focus on carbon capture, removal, and storage promises to be controversial. These technologies include systems that prevent greenhouse-gas emissions from leaving power plants and factories; “direct air capture” tools that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and even farming techniques that suck up and store more carbon in soil. (ARPA-E has made some investments in such areas already, too.)

Many fear that these technologies could help extend the life of the fossil-fuel industry. But they may also provide ways of preventing or counteracting emissions from sectors where there aren’t affordable and scalable clean options, like steel, cement, aviation, and agriculture. What’s more, the technologies could be critical in reducing levels of carbon dioxide already in the air.

The Biden administration said it wants to boost funding in other areas as well, including cheaper energy storage; lower-cost clean vehicles and transit; sustainable fuels for aircraft and ships; carbon-neutral building materials; and cheap, clean forms of hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel and is a crucial ingredient in certain industrial processes.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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