Sustainable development concept

House Democrats Release Plan to Tackle Climate Change

Last month, Democratic members of a House climate change committee unveiled their blueprint for achieving a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Nearly two years in the making, the report outlines dozens of recommendations – from emissions reduction targets for buildings, to mandated reductions in food waste – for Congress to act upon.

To be sure, the plan is unlikely to even receive a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. But as the November elections approach, and the GOP’s hold on the Senate and White House is cast into doubt, Democrats may be in a position to advance legislation resembling the Solving the Climate Crisis report as soon as 2021. It’s therefore important to understand Democratic lawmakers’ vision, and the impact this proposal would have.

The plan lays out a series of ambitious targets with corresponding milestones. For example, achieving 100 percent sales of zero-emission cars by 2035, shifting to emissions-free power plants by 2040, and reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It also attempts to address the issue of “environmental justice,” the concept that low-income and minority communities tend to be disproportionately impacted by pollution and environmental destruction. One of the recommendations calls for using revenue generated from a new carbon tax to invest in these communities and reverse these trends.

Other proposals include stricter resiliency standards for buildings and infrastructure; protection of at least 30 percent of all U.S. lands and ocean areas by 2030; a transition to “clean energy” manufacturing technologies; and increased investment in public health supply chains.  

When it comes to the commercial buildings stock, the report lays out a general goal of “decarbonizing the building sector.” To be sure, its target of net-zero building emissions by 2030 is ambitious. But by imposing this requirement only on new buildings – combined with tax incentives to offset the substantially higher upfront costs of efficient technology – the proposal appears to present a far more realistic and workable framework than some of its predecessors.

Elsewhere, the report acknowledges the benefits of adaptive reuse of older buildings, and calls for an expansion of the Historic Tax Credit. Retrofitting would also be incentivized though a new small business energy efficiency grant program. It also calls for the implementation of a national energy benchmarking program, and highlights the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program as a logical solution.

That said, the climate report is short on details when it comes to the value and scope of these incentives. This information will be critical in determining whether the Solving the Climate Crisis plan is truly feasible, or yet another unfunded – and unworkable – mandate.

Another area where additional scrutiny is needed is the 12th “pillar” of the report, which calls for quantifying the benefits of federal climate action. Given the vast capital expenditures that would be needed to completely overhaul the U.S. economy as envisioned, such an empirical approach is warranted.

At first glance, it appears the climate report follows this model. But, as economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin points out, the devil is in the details. In a blog post, he explains how the proposal, if enacted, could open the door to analyses that overstate the benefits of new regulations and mandates, simply by tweaking the assumed “cost to society” of certain actions.

NAIOP has long championed sensible approaches to incentivizing energy efficiency and reducing emissions. But arbitrary mandates that ignore economic and technological realities can have severe consequences, and ultimately be counterproductive. Unfortunately, the Solving the Climate Crisis report is silent on a number of key details that are needed to assess its potential viability. In the meantime, the fate of the climate action plan will likely rest in the hands of voters, who head to the polls on Nov. 3.

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