19 May 2021

New Statesman: “America’s race to net zero”

When you break down the items included in the package, its true modesty becomes clear. On passenger railway transport – an area in which the US lags far behind China and other advanced economies – the Jobs Plan proposes $10bn per annum over eight years. That, as the fine print states, should allow America to address Amtrak’s repair backlog; modernise the high-traffic Northeast Corridor; improve existing corridors and connect new city pairs. It will no doubt create good jobs. What it will not do is catapult the US into an age of high-speed rail travel to match that pioneered by Japan and China. The latter currently has 19,000 miles of high-speed track; America boasts 500 miles.

It is indicative of the lack of transformative ambition that the proposed spending on electric cars is larger than that targeted at public transport. Car culture, one of the symbolic essentials of the American way of life, is clearly non-negotiable. A total of $174bn is allocated to the electric vehicle sector, including spending on the motor industry, purchase subsidies and car-charging infrastructure.

The Jobs Plan proposes to allocate much funding to universities; but the core promise on clean energy R&D is to invest $35bn in the full range of solutions needed to achieve technology breakthroughs that address the climate crisis and position America as the global leader in clean energy technology and clean energy jobs. This sum, $35bn, is less than Americans spend annually on pet food and will be spread over eight years. Either you don’t dare ask for more, or you underestimate the scale of the technological challenge and believe that the full range of solutions needed for the US to make these breakthroughs and become a global leader will be as easy as buying dog treats.

Adam Tooze

Aside from its modest size and ambition, the fundamental question behind any US climate action plan is whether it can survive a change of administration, or even the elections for Congress coming up in 2022. The world cannot afford to have the United States, the largest emitter of CO2, change its climate policies with each election cycle, to have a global effort delayed by a party allergic to any scientific evidence. Maybe US companies will continue to pursue green energy in the absence of active government support, but the process would be considerably faster with proper stimulus and central guidance – and some areas, like public transportation, railroad and car charging infrastructure, are mostly the government’s responsibility anyway.

Net Zero by 2050, a roadmap for the Global Energy Sector
Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, from the IEA

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