Politics & Policy

What a Republican Climate-Change Agenda Might Look Like

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy holds a news conference at the U.S Capitol, January 30, 2020. (Amanda Voisard/Reuters)
Republican leaders in Congress have started to hash out policies to address the problem. Here’s what they should focus on.

For the first time in a long time, Republicans seem engaged on climate change. As concern over the issue surges among younger Republicans and sweeping Democratic proposals demand an answer from the right, GOP lawmakers have come forward with bills of their own to address the problem. The top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy, recently sat down with Axios’s Amy Harder to outline the biggest goals of a Republican climate-change agenda, namely:

• Carbon capture, with a focus on natural solutions such as more trees and improved soil-management (what President Trump called the “trillion trees initiative” in his State of the Union Address);

• Clean-energy innovation; and

• Conservation and recycling, with a focus on plastic waste.

The first thing to say here is that Republican lawmakers’ now-explicit interest in climate-change policy is unequivocally good. Policy and legislation are better served by competing visions of action, not the permanent partisan stalemate that has characterized the debate to date. But Republicans might be missing an opportunity here all the same. So-called “natural” climate solutions such as planting trees and improving soil-management have uncertain long-term benefits to the climate. Likewise, as I’ve written elsewhere, plastic bags and plastic straws are highly visible forms of waste that don’t actually have huge impacts on climate change.

Republicans can do better, and it wouldn’t take signing onto the Green New Deal to do so. Instead of offering watered-down versions of environmental proposals popular on the left, they could build a truly Republican climate-change agenda centered on innovation, nuclear power, natural gas, carbon capture, and large-scale agriculture.

Start with innovation: Republicans should demonstrate a commitment to it beyond “basic science,” backing carbon capture, nuclear energy, renewables, and other clean-energy technologies. And, by all accounts, they appear ready to do just that. They have reliably rejected President Trump’s proposals to slash clean-energy RD&D (research, design, and development) funding from the budgets of the Department of Energy and other federal agencies. In just the past two years, they have co-sponsored, introduced, and/or helped pass policies to accelerate demonstration and deployment of nuclear-energy and carbon-capture technologies, including the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), the USE IT Act, and the Section 45Q tax credit for carbon removal.

Importantly, these initiatives span the breadth of the “innovation pipeline,” from early-stage research to commercial deployment. Expanding on these commitments to technology-specific clean-energy innovation should form the backbone of a Republican vision of de-carbonization. Such commitments can make clean energy cheaper not just in the United States but also in poor and middle-income countries, where consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas is still growing.

Republicans have long favored nuclear energy and have, to their credit, worked across the aisle to advance key nuclear-innovation policies over the past decade, including NELA, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Commercialization Act, and the creation of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program at the Department of Energy. With a new generation of advanced, smaller nuclear reactors poised to begin coming online in the next five years, nuclear energy is one key area where Republicans can demonstrate their commitment to innovation outside basic science. Advanced reactors could benefit from funding and facilities for demonstration at national laboratories, procurement by the U.S. military and other government agencies, and even early support for commercial deployment of the kind that has benefited wind, solar, and electric-vehicle technologies.

In contrast to some prominent Democrats’ promises to ban hydraulic fracturing, a move that would by all indications increase emissions, Republicans could leverage America’s abundant stores of natural gas to reduce emissions domestically and internationally. Because natural-gas plants are less capital-intensive than coal plants and combustion emissions from natural gas are much cleaner than emissions from coal production, natural gas with carbon capture actually makes much more sense, technically and economically, than coal with carbon capture. Policy could accelerate the development of new technologies that would allow the United States to continue producing natural gas, just without the emissions.

More than that, one can imagine a bipartisan grand bargain of sorts in which the federal government increases exports of natural gas in exchange for tighter regulations on methane emissions and on flaring from natural-gas production and distribution systems. Substantially expanding natural-gas-export capacities would likely reduce natural-gas prices globally while increasing them domestically, thereby keeping them from undercutting nuclear and renewable energy in the United States while helping to displace coal generation globally. The magnitude of the impact would depend on how much gas was exported and its effects on the global supply and the domestic market. But paired with lowered methane leakage, the impact on emissions would almost certainly be salutary.

Finally, in contrast to Democrats’ focus on small farms and organic agriculture, Republicans could promote the benefits to the climate of America’s existing industrial-farm system. And they’d be on firm ground doing so: Because they’re so productive, American industrial farms tend to use less land and have lower greenhouse-gas emissions and nitrogen pollution per unit of food produced than the global average.

Boosting federal agricultural RD&D spending to improve productivity even further would have significant positive environmental effects as well. The United States exports more agricultural products than any other country. Greater productivity would boost exports even further and lower global commodity prices, which has been demonstrated to slow deforestation rates and the growth of emissions associated with global agriculture.

More than that, if policymakers found a way to let it, the productivity of our farm system could serve multiple environmental ends. The corn-ethanol tax credit has long been recognized as a fiscal and environmental disaster. Environmentalists don’t like it because the emissions benefits of blending ethanol into gasoline are uncertain, while conservatives have attacked it as one of the more egregious examples of rent-seeking in the U.S. tax code. A Republican climate-change agenda could include repurposing the tax credit, transforming it from a support for ethanol production into a support for additional U.S. exports. Perhaps even more than increasing crop productivity, this could help lower global food prices and slow deforestation abroad. I concede that this would be a heavy lift, but it also seems like the rare policy that environmentalists, Republicans, farmers, and the oil industry could all support.

Which is, of course, the ultimate goal: Effective climate-change policies will need to appeal to a broad variety of stakeholders, rather than passing an ideological-purity test. What’s important is not whether a Republican climate-change agenda is “better” or “worse” than current Democratic proposals but that it is different. On this as much as any issue, intellectual competition between Republicans and Democrats will create the opportunity for negotiation and compromise. After all, there are both plenty of things in here that Democrats would find distasteful and some things that they might find appealing. More-stringent methane regulations and the long-desired phaseout of the ethanol tax credit strike me as ideas that both parties could support. Likewise, Republicans have supported clean-energy standards at both the state and federal levels in the past. A federal clean-energy standard would prevent the nation’s nuclear power plants from closing and being replaced by fossil fuels, something that should appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats.

An agenda resembling what I’ve laid out here would boost American investments in technology and enterprise, increase American exports, improve American energy independence, support the development of a domestic clean-energy industry that can compete globally, support the domestic agriculture sector, and eliminate one of the biggest and most widely hated of all subsidies. Add it all together and you have not only a credible package of climate policies but a credible Republican one.

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