What’s New and Noteworthy in the Latest Congressional Report on Climate Change

by Julio Friedmann |June 30, 2020
A Climeworks plant captures carbon out of the air

A Climeworks plant captures carbon out of the air. Photo: Julio Friedmann

Normally, a fact-based congressional report might not get much attention. However, we are not in normal times, and this is not a normal report from a normal committee.

On June 30, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its long-drafted and long-awaited report. Weighing in at some 547 pages, it’s an enormous document full of detailed recommendations around climate action, existing legislation, and what’s politically possible. It is broad and affirmative — exactly the kind of stance the climate crisis demands — and at times both appropriately grand and appropriately detailed and granular.

Importantly, the report also takes a “whole of government” approach. Recommendations flow to specific agencies, propose new congressional authorizations and new funding levels and line-items, and coordinate across multiple agencies and committees. The specific recommendations range from “pass this law” to “do these studies” to “create these agencies.”

Make no mistake — it’s a major piece of work and we’re better off for it. Kudos to all involved.

That includes me. Early on and occasionally throughout, I was asked to contribute thoughts and facts regarding specific aspects of the report (for the record, that’s exactly the sort of thing we do at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy). In that context, I wanted to share some thoughts about the finished product and how it contributes to our national conversation about climate and energy.

New and Noteworthy

Whether you’re an old hand at climate and energy or new to the conversation, two sections of the report are new and noteworthy: Industrial Decarbonization and Engineered CO2 Removal. Historically, these have been absent or completely eclipsed by discussions around the power sector, transportation, building efficiency and forests. We certainly need plenty of action on all those fronts and the corresponding report sections are excellent.

The report finds that 29 percent of emissions are tied to U.S. industrial production (this includes electric power for industry). It also finds the IPCC reports to be accurate in their assessment that we must reduce billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year worldwide to achieve our climate goals. On these grounds, sections on industrial greenhouse gas reduction and engineered carbon dioxide removal merit additional attention. Both sections reference advanced technology and existing draft legislation. Both sections make discrete recommendations on how the U.S. can make progress and lead.

In the industrial sector, the report focuses on efficiency, hydrogen, and carbon capture, utilization, and storage. That’s appropriate, as discussed by myself and other Columbia scholars here and here. A lot of recommendations focus on material reuse and recycling, which would decrease demand for new materials and their associated emissions. Report recommendations include enhanced incentives to finance clean industrial projects, without which nothing gets built. I’m personally fond of the recommendations on physical infrastructure investment — such as transmission lines or pipelines for carbon dioxide or hydrogen — particularly for industrial hubs and clusters. Much of the U.S. industrial base is in a few key geographies (Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, etc.) where a small investment in green industrial infrastructure would go far.

These are very valuable, but fairly obvious. Much less obvious and very valuable is knowledge infrastructure — data gathering and sharing, human capital building, and enhanced job training. Creating information and a workforce is essential, especially to maintain global U.S. competitiveness, and are both low-cost and high public value.

Similarly, the report recommends a focus on government procurement. This is VERY big — a massive, under-deployed policy tool. Governments buy 50 percent of concrete, 20 percent of steel, and 5 percent of the fuels, which makes the procurement lever an outsized opportunity. The report recommendations include “buy-clean” provisions, in part modelled after states like California and Oregon, considering everything from clean military fuels to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levees. I was particularly pleased to see the recommendations for the government to develop a procurement standard for low-carbon heat (something the Center on Global Energy Policy studied in-depth).

Compared to the industrial sector, however, the carbon dioxide removal discussion is all new. It acknowledges the need for a climate counterstrike, which itself is a consequence of failure to avoid emissions earlier on. Importantly, the report underscored the need to prioritize investment in three approaches — direct air capture, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and carbon mineralization — as additional complements to other mitigation approaches and carbon dioxide removal through managed ecosystems. The report proposed enhancing financial tools (like the 45Q tax credit for carbon sequestration) and buying clean provisions using these approaches.

Since these three technologies are relatively early in development, many recommendations focused on innovation, adopting the findings and recommendations of earlier studies (e.g., this one by Energy Future Initiative and another by the National Academies). Recommendations included nearly $1 billion per year in new budgets and new authorizations within agencies. This is overdue and welcome and should be part of a larger innovation package. We know the recipe for market-oriented innovation and should put on our chef’s hats to cook up more.

The report also acknowledged the potential for these approaches to help implement low-carbon standards in electricity, heavy duty transportation, and other key sectors. That’s very welcome. If direct air capture, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and carbon mineralization deliver low-cost carbon dioxide removal options in the future, that would make the cost of abatement and greenhouse gas reduction cheaper overall.

This Recommendation Rocks

Both industry and engineered carbon dioxide removal need an essential element: geological carbon dioxide storage. Hosannah.

The report confirmed the findings of many experts: In many cases, the cheapest and fastest way to reduce emissions is through carbon capture, either from industrial sources, power source, or the air and oceans. To do that requires a proven and regulated set of carbon dioxide storage sites. The report recommends many specific actions, including enhanced budgets to prove up sites (e.g., through the CarbonSAFE program) and enhanced IRS and EPA oversight (in part prompted by faulty applications for 45Q tax credits).

All these recommendations can be summarized in a simple way: We need more. We need more technologies, more policy options, and more innovation. We need to match these new options to the ambition demanded by the climate crisis itself and the challenges (and opportunities) it presents to America. At the same time, we must be humble about how hard this will be.

The Select Committee’s report tries to balance these competing drives. Bravo to all those who helped make it real. May the 116th Congress and those that soon follow adopt many of these recommendations swiftly and well.

Julio Friedmann is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and an expert in carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration. In addition to the many reports cited above, he has written short pieces about some of the topics addressed here. Check out these three-minute reads:

The New Carbon Economy

The Climate Counterstrike

We Need More Wizards

To Tackle Climate Change, the (Industrial) Heat Is On

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