Why the White House never released its 2030 climate strategy

By Jean Chemnick | 02/18/2022 06:31 AM EST

Administration officials worked on a report showing how the U.S. would cut emissions in half. Those details haven’t been released because of political turmoil in Congress and uncertainty about the strength of climate regulations.

Gina McCarthy, Pete Buttigieg and other administration officials.

White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy speaks during an event at the Transportation Department last week. She's joined by (from left) Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and White House infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Correction appended.

The United States still owes the world details about how it plans to meet President Biden’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of this decade.

The White House promised last year that those would come in the form of a comprehensive “U.S. National Climate Strategy.” That term was used more than 20 times by the American government in a report submitted to the U.N. climate body last year on how the United States would zero out emissions by 2050.


That submission, known as “The Long-Term Strategy of the United States,” calls the National Climate Strategy, or NCS, a “companion” document that “focuses on the immediate policies and actions that will put America on track to reduce emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030.”

Participants in the global climate talks assumed the NCS would be released at the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

It still hasn’t been made public.

Releasing the strategy would end the mystery around Biden’s ambitious promise to slash emissions in half by 2030. Currently, no one knows exactly how the administration will achieve those cuts. And that may be why the strategy hasn’t been released: Because the administration isn’t sure either.

A week before the conference opened, White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy and national economic adviser Brian Deese briefed environmental groups on the National Climate Strategy, leaving them with the impression that the strategy’s release was imminent.

“My belief is, they were getting a little out over their skis,” one participant said.

At the time, the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress still hoped that the House and Senate would pass the “Build Back Better Act” — a sprawling climate and social spending bill that would go a long way toward meeting Biden’s promise to slash emissions in half by 2030.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called passage of the act “imperative” to U.S. credibility at the climate talks.

But then “Build Back Better” faltered in the Senate after moderate Democrats balked at its price tag and social spending provisions.

Three months later, it remains mired in gridlock on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the Biden administration faces the prospect this year of a Supreme Court decision that could severely restrict its ability to achieve its 2030 commitment through regulations that would limit power plant emissions.

Amid all this uncertainty, the White House has stopped talking about its 2030 road map — the National Climate Strategy. It didn’t respond to inquiries for this story.

Advocates who are in touch with McCarthy and her staff say they’re focused on trying to resuscitate the climate provisions in “Build Back Better” rather than cobbling together a plan B for the 2030 emissions goal.

And for now, they say, that’s fine.

“I’m not sure that sooner would be better than later if sooner means uncertainty about both of those elements,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate with E3G, referring to Congress and the Supreme Court.

“The utility of a product that lays out a strategy on how we meet our emissions targets before we pass a much-needed legislative vehicle is marginal,” said Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, a left-leaning climate group.

The Paris Agreement’s rulebook doesn’t actually ask countries to provide a full accounting on how they plan to meet their nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. The Biden administration turned in its other U.N. climate homework last year, including the 2050 decarbonization plan and a biennial report on emissions and carbon sinks that was overdue from the Trump administration.

Still, international climate experts say more details would be welcome — from the United States particularly, after it left the Paris deal under former President Trump.

Meyer said international partners are “informally asking for reassurances whenever they have conversations with the U.S.”

“But they understand very well that we have a separation-of-powers government, and they understand how narrow the control is, especially in the Senate,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone pressing the U.S. to make a formal submission of its climate strategy before it has some sense of what’s going to happen in Congress.”

But he said that if Congress doesn’t act before the next round of U.N. climate talks — in Egypt this November — the Biden administration will have to show its cards about how it plans to meet its emissions commitment — particularly if Democrats are poised to lose their majorities in Congress after the midterm election.

‘Sort of waiting’

McCarthy’s White House climate office is taking the lead in writing the National Climate Strategy, just as it did the 2030 pledge that Biden unveiled at his Earth Day summit last year. Climate envoy John Kerry’s staff took the lead in drafting the report on the U.S. long-term decarbonization pathway and has given input on the National Climate Strategy. But the domestic climate office is responsible for nationally determined contributions, and the strategy to meet it.

McCarthy’s deputy, Ali Zaidi, is overseeing its development with policy adviser Greg Carlock. Those briefed say the National Climate Strategy was already partially written before the talks in Glasgow, when it was assumed that “Build Back Better” would be enacted. Observers don’t think the office is actively running scenarios now for how to meet the 50-to-52-percent pledge without legislation.

The White House has little incentive to do so. Putting out a road map that relies on uncertain congressional action could anger key lawmakers —like West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who has yet to sign off on a version of the “Build Back Better” climate provisions despite some suggestions that he might do so.

A White House strategy previewing an aggressive regime of EPA regulatory actions and limited fossil fuel development aimed at delivering the 2030 target could displease Manchin, a staunch champion of his state’s coal industry.

Meanwhile, West Virginia’s other senator has made Biden’s Paris Agreement pledge her top oversight priority as ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) has written to EPA and the White House numerous times demanding details about how the 2030 climate goal was constructed.

“Congress has yet to receive any data generated or used to determine Biden’s greenhouse gas target,” she wrote in a November op-ed in The Hill newspaper. “By hiding its calculations, the Biden administration is avoiding tough questions about the policies that would be required to meet our climate pledge and how those policies would impact the lives of everyday Americans and small businesses.”

Nate Hultman, the director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, who joined Kerry’s staff last year and was lead author of the U.S. Long-Term Strategy, said both reports were based on the same modeling.

“The general trajectory that’s noted in the LTS is consistent with our NDC — 50 to 52 [percent] — and does include some underlying policy drivers in that,” said Hultman, who returned to the University of Maryland earlier this year. “So it’s just that we weren’t as explicit in that, because we were sort of waiting for the [National Climate Strategy] to be able to do that deep dive into what’s happening in the near term.”

‘Push and pull’

The long-term road map points to Biden administration commitments that underly the 2050 decarbonization trajectory, like the pledge that U.S. power-sector emissions would be zeroed out by 2035. The long-term strategy says that can be achieved through incentives, emission standards, investments in technology to “increase the flexibility of the electricity system” and other steps that it promises will be detailed in the National Climate Strategy.

Hultman was an architect of the original nationally determined contribution under former President Obama — a 26-to-28-percent carbon reduction by 2025. Hultman worked on it in 2014 during a previous stint at the White House under senior climate aide Rick Duke, whom Kerry tapped last week to be the U.S. lead negotiator on climate change.

During the Trump years, Hultman did modeling and reporting on the kind of commitment the United States could make when — and if — it returned to the Paris Agreement. The United States would need to offer a new and tighter pledge for 2030 that would align with an emerging global focus on keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Hultman co-authored two reports that were part of a broader wealth of peer-reviewed literature by outside groups like Rhodium Group, Princeton University and Energy Innovation that all indicated the United States could cut its greenhouse gas emissions about in half by 2030.

These models all pointed to reduction opportunities from federal executive authority, state and local action, and legislation. Most assumed that Congress would act to make low-carbon technologies more competitive through incentives, if not through clean energy standards or other policy options that were cut from earlier versions of “Build Back Better.”

The most recent version of the package would spend more than $550 billion supporting a low-carbon transition. And that could make regulation more cost-effective, said Robbie Orvis, senior director of energy policy design at Energy Innovation. By helping renewable energy achieve higher levels of penetration in the power grid at a lower cost, federal agencies could introduce regulations that would focus on retiring unabated coal-fired power without burdening consumers.

“It’s definitely like a push and pull,” said Orvis. “The more we can do in ‘Build Back Better’ with incentives, the easier it makes the standards side of things.”

Without congressional action, he said, the Biden administration would need to fall back on “a mix” of stronger standards for sectors that have already come under carbon regulation while exploring new regulatory options.

The Biden administration introduced an initiative this week aimed at wringing emissions reductions out of the manufacturing sector by leveraging federal procurement. The sector accounts for roughly a quarter of U.S. emissions but has yet to face direct carbon dioxide regulation under the Clean Air Act. But Orvis suggested that might be the kind of opportunity that would allow the United States to meet its 2030 commitment absent action by Congress.

‘Zero chance’

But if Biden’s climate objectives face an uncertain future on Capitol Hill, they’re facing headwinds in the courts, too.

Oral arguments begin in 10 days in West Virginia v. EPA, a case that has the potential to severely limit the scope not only of EPA’s regulations for power plant carbon emissions but of future greenhouse gas rulemakings for other stationary sources, like refineries and cement plants.

The Supreme Court’s decision last year to take up the challenge to a defunct Obama-era rule that the Biden administration has said it will not reinstate was seen by many as an eagerness of the court’s conservative majority to clip EPA’s regulatory wings on climate change. The court’s decision is expected in June — about the time global climate negotiators meet for a mid-year conference on implementing rules related to the Paris Agreement.

McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator under Obama, said during a virtual event last week hosted by POLITICO that she was confident EPA’s future rules would stand up to legal challenge.

“And we’re not going to try to be creative,” she pledged.

Obama’s EPA took an expansive view of its authorities under the Clean Air Act by looking for opportunities to reduce emissions across the power grid and encouraging fuel switching. The rule took years to construct and was stayed by the Supreme Court. Many of the same officials who worked on it have returned to senior positions in Biden’s EPA.

Nat Keohane, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said there is no practical pathway to Biden’s 2030 climate pledge without congressional action.

“If the idea is, well, we’ll just fall back on regulation to meet the 2030 goal, I think that has zero chance of support,” he said. “From just a hard-nosed sort of political, what’s-actually-possible-in-the-real-world point of view … a strategy that tries to achieve the NDC without the kinds of investments in ‘Build Back Better’ is just not going to succeed.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the committee where Sen. Shelley Moore Capito serves as ranking member.