Climate Change Legislation Included in Coronavirus Relief Deal

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators inserted a bipartisan measure to curtail planet-warming chemicals used in air-conditioners and refrigerators in the huge government spending and coronavirus relief package that is expected to head to President Trump’s desk on Monday.

The legislation would be the first significant climate change law to pass Congress since at least 2009.

Also riding on the larger package is a separate bill to promote renewable energy by directing about $35 billion in existing government spending toward the development of wind, solar and other clean energy sources over the next five years.

Both bills are backed by some of the Senate’s most powerful Republicans, creating a rare party rebuke to President Trump on the issue of global warming, after he has spent the past four years mocking and systematically rolling back every major climate change rule.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called the bill to reduce planet-warming chemicals “the single biggest victory in the fight against climate change to pass this body in a decade.”

In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, who has been a leading opponent of most climate change policies, also celebrated the legislation. “This agreement protects both American consumers and American businesses,” he said. “We can have clean air without damaging our economy.”

Advocates for climate change policy said passage of the climate measure in the waning days of Mr. Trump’s administration could be the first signal by the United States to the rest of the world that it is ready to rejoin the global effort to slow the warming of the planet. President-elect Joseph. R. Biden Jr. has pledged to enact the most ambitious climate change agenda by a president. On his Inauguration Day he is expected to formally rejoin the Paris agreement, the 2015 pact under which nearly every country in the world agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Trump formally withdrew the United States from the agreement in November. Mr. Biden has also pledged to host a global climate summit in Washington within the first 100 days of his administration.

The bill to cut planet-warming chemicals “is the most important thing, along with rejoining Paris, that they can show in the first 100 days,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute of Governance and Sustainable Development, a research organization. “This is one of the first exhibits of success.”

The new legislation would require the nation’s chemical manufacturers to phase down the production and use of coolants called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. HFCs are a small percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, compared with emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the fossil fuels that power vehicles, electric plants and factories, but they have 1,000 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide.

In a 2016 accord signed in Kigali, Rwanda, in the last days of the Obama administration, 197 nations agreed to phase out the use of HFCs in favor of alternatives that are less dangerous to the climate. The Kigali agreement was an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the landmark 1987 treaty designed to close the hole in the ozone layer.

Once the Kigali amendment is implemented by all nations, scientists say it would stave off an increase of atmospheric temperatures of nearly one degree Fahrenheit. That would be a major step toward averting an atmospheric temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which many experts think the world will be locked into a future of rising sea levels, severe droughts and flooding, widespread food and water shortages, and more powerful hurricanes. But the Trump administration never ratified the Kigali pact, and instead has proposed to roll back federal regulations curbing the use of HFCs in the United States.

Now, Mr. Trump is about to sign into law a bill that will require the United States to effectively follow the terms of the Kigali agreement, which requires companies to phase down production and consumption of HFCs to about 15 percent of 2012 levels by 2036. The phase-down will be administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The bill represents both a substantive and symbolic first step toward Mr. Biden’s efforts to rebuild President Barack Obama’s climate change legacy, after its systematic dismantling by Mr. Trump. The chief United States negotiators of the Kigali amendment were John Kerry, the former Secretary of State, and Gina McCarthy, the former E.P.A. administrator. Mr. Biden has just appointed Mr. Kerry and Ms. McCarthy as his top White House climate advisers.

Even in a Biden administration, it is not certain whether the United States will ratify the Kigali pact, because to do so would require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate. But the new law effectively puts the United States in compliance with the terms of the deal.

“This provides the green light for Kigali to go into action,” said Frank V. Maisano, a principal at the law firm Bracewell, which represents chemical companies. “This makes it live. It puts the treaty into law.”

American chemical companies have actually been among the strongest supporters of the Kigali pact and the HFC bill, because most already manufacture the more climate friendly HFC replacements.

Stephen Yurek, the chief executive of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, an industry group, was in Kigali four years ago to push for the closing of that deal. He has spent the past two years lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill to enact it into law at home.

“U.S. companies are already the leaders with the technology that has been developed to replace the less environmentally-friendly refrigerants,” he said. “This bill is a victory for the manufacturers of all these products — not just the refrigerants; the equipment and component manufacturers,” he said.

Failure to pass the bill would harm the industry by allowing the market to flood with cheaper, less climate-friendly imports, he said.

Mr. Yurek said his industry has also worried about the effects of new state-level laws on HFCs. At least eight states have passed laws requiring HFC reductions.

“By not moving forward with a national program, you’ll have a patchwork of state programs, which makes it harder for manufacturers,” he said.

The push by industry to enact the bill brought along support from Republicans, despite Mr. Trump’s opposition to climate policy. At least 16 Republicans have signed on as sponsors to the legislation, which was jointly written by Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana. Mr. Kennedy’s state is home to hundreds of chemical manufacturing facilities; he framed the bill as a job creator for those companies.

“American jobs are on the line, and we can protect them by keeping the United States competitive in global industry,” he said. “To create thousands of jobs, save billions of dollars and safeguard the environment, we must invest in alternatives to HFCs.”

Environmental groups celebrated the support of Republicans like Mr. Kennedy. “It points to what we saw out of this election — voters want action on climate and even some Republicans want action on climate, and the Republicans leading on this HFC deal are starting to understand that,” said Matthew Davis, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters.

In addition to the HFC bill, the larger spending package also included a bipartisan renewable energy bill, co-sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, and Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Energy committee.

The bill would not appropriate any new government spending, but it would authorize $35 billion in existing government funding to be spent on clean energy programs over the next five years, including $1 billion for energy storage technology that could serve as batteries for wind and solar power, $1.5 billion for demonstration projects for new solar technology, $2.1 billion for advanced nuclear energy technology and $450 million for technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The bill would also direct federal agencies to update the government programs that oversee renewable energy spending.

“Some of these will be the first updates to these programs since the iPhone was first in use,” said Josh Freed, an energy policy analyst with Third Way, a center-left research organization. “It’s critically important because energy systems looked a lot different 10 years ago. There were almost no EVs on the road, very little solar panels on roofs, Tesla didn’t exist.”

Of the pair of bills, Mr. Freed said, “This is a big win for president-elect Biden because it shows that there can be bipartisan agreement for ambitious climate change and clean energy action in the next Congress.”

Still, it is clear that climate change is likely still a partisan land mine for some. Mr. Yurek, the lobbyist for the coolant industry, said that he was hesitant to even use the word “climate” when talking about the bill, for fear that Mr. Trump would veto any legislation that is seen as boosting Mr. Biden’s agenda.

“We didn't want to give him any excuse to not sign it,” Mr. Yurek said. “We just wanted him to sign the overall bill.”

Source: Read Full Article