On December 8, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to spearhead his administration’s efforts to combat climate change. What does this order actually promise to accomplish? How does that compare with what other nations are doing? Is any of it enough to avert global calamity?

The Biden executive order “will reduce emissions across federal operations, invest in American clean energy industries and manufacturing, and create clean, healthy, and resilient communities.” However, lofty verbiage aside, this is mostly about government operations (e.g., purchases of vehicles and standards for federal buildings) and not the entire economy.

Most countries (124 out of 137 signatories to COP 26, including the US) have set aspirational nationwide net neutrality goals for 2050. Suriname and Bhutan claim already to be net neutral, while other nations, including Uruguay and Sweden, are aiming for sooner, and a few, like China and Singapore, are targeting later dates. Very few countries have binding domestic legislation to meet those goals, or sound, detailed technical plans that will enable a full energy transition. (I’m not going to discuss here whether a full transition to renewable energy sources at scale is actually feasible; that’s covered in long form here, and in short form here.) So, the US is not doing as much as some countries, but more, at least on paper, than some others.

Countries that have become carbon neutral, or are aiming to do so soon, are in two categories: small nations with very low per capita energy usage (Bhutan, Suriname, and Uruguay), or European nations with roughly half the per capita energy usage of the US, and much stronger popular commitment to tackling climate change (e.g., Germany, which has subsidized wind and solar for the last couple of decades). Iceland, which is aiming for 2040, has an unusually robust domestic renewable energy resource (geothermal) that is already highly developed. The United States is in a more difficult position, with very high per capita and total energy usage, and an economy that’s historically closely tied to the fossil fuel industry.

Europe is reliant on fossil fuel imports (largely from Russia), so that group of countries has an extra incentive to reduce its carbon dependency—and that partly explains the higher energy efficiency standards that have been adopted by many European nations.

China uses an extraordinary amount of coal—over half the world’s annual supply. (By the way, two-thirds of the commercially available solar panels are made with electricity generated from Chinese coal.) China will face mammoth technical challenges in replacing coal, and the nation’s leaders know it. Even though they’re installing solar at a record pace, that’s still a small contributor to the Chinese economy. Globally, solar and wind together produce 3.3 percent of all energy; for China, these sources produce about 4 percent—about the same as the US. However, while wind and solar are growing fast, so is China’s total energy usage. China is targeting 2060 for net-zero carbon emissions, which is later than most nations, but even that goal seems unrealistic and aspirational at this point.

In addition to his executive order, Biden has backed infrastructure spending that would incentivize industry to produce more electric vehicles and other technologies that could eventually lower emissions. This is important because solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear all produce electricity, but only about 20 percent of energy is currently used in the form of electricity. So, the energy transition will require vast spending to directly or indirectly electrify industries like aviation, shipping, trucking, the heating and cooling of buildings, and high-heat industrial processes like cement making. What Biden is proposing, both in the executive order and the infrastructure bill, is a start—but only that.

Not much in the Biden executive order is surprising for those who have been following US and global climate policy. The energy transition will be extraordinarily challenging and expensive (again, see links above regarding feasibility), so of course all governments are going after the low-hanging fruit first. Government operations and electric cars are the lowest fruit on the lowest branch. If Biden had, for example, proposed a plan to gradually but systematically reduce fossil fuel production and consumption throughout the US economy, that would have been remarkable and courageous. The best way forward for this or any other country would be a program for rationing our remaining fossil fuels, with an annually declining cap on production. That would aid planning at all levels, from households to industry to government. But political support for such a measure is unlikely to coalesce until circumstances (i.e., consequences of climate change and fossil fuel depletion) grow more obvious and dire.

Another helpful line of attack would be to replace GDP in government operations and planning with quality-of-life and health-of-environment measures (as Rep. Omar has proposed). The demand for GDP growth locks us all into the requirement for ever more energy and materials usage. That path leads straight to a cliff, which we are fast approaching.

Meanwhile, the national and global climate discussion remains mired in energy misconceptions and ecological ignorance. Net neutrality is a technical goal, based on a technical reading of the climate problem. We’re polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, so (it is assumed) we just need to change our energy sources and remove some carbon from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, however, the very basis of our industrial economy (energy and resources in, waste out) is inherently unsustainable. Policymakers are using climate change as a flag to rally the public in the general direction of efforts that would eventually result in better practices. But we could accomplish a lot more, and faster, if only the public—and policymakers themselves!—understood the simple math of exponential growth, and the near-lockstep correlation between global GDP growth on one hand, and the increase in energy and materials usage and waste (including CO2) production on the other. Then perhaps we could get down to the task that will really matter in the long run—learning to live happily within Earth’s limits.

How impactful is the Biden executive order—will it make a difference? Of course, everything makes some difference. US federal government energy usage is not trivial, especially if the military is included—a little less than a tenth of the total national energy budget. So, the order could be regarded as a down payment toward real action.

The Biden administration is doing what is politically possible. As we’ve seen, other nations (including European allies) are doing more, or have a somewhat easier technical pathway to net neutrality, so Biden wants to at least look like a leader in the fight against climate change, and his proposals provide some virtue signaling in that regard.

Is this all too little and too late? Well, it’s certainly too little, and it’s too late to avert significant impacts to nature and humanity. But it’s not too late to wise up to natural limits and start planning for low-energy life after fossil fuels. If we adopt a cynical attitude and do nothing, we guarantee the worst possible outcome for future generations.

 

Teaser photo credit: The Imperial Valley Geothermal Project near the Salton Sea, California. By Jack Catalano – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84570597