Washington Watch: ‘Enormous buying power of federal government’: Biden aims for carbon-neutral U.S. by 2050 with new executive order

President Joe Biden will sign an executive order Wednesday, making good on his early-administration promise to have the federal government lead on the path to a carbon-neutral U.S. by 2050.

That decade is a target largely in line with emissions promises made by other economic powers around the globe, save for China, which thinks it can get there by 2060.

The Biden administration will create a federal fleet of electric vehicles, upgrade federal buildings and change how the government buys electricity. The president’s team predicts this effort will would add at least 10 gigawatts of clean electricity to the national grid.

Under the new approach, federal operations would run entirely on carbon-free electricity by 2030. By 2035, the government would stop buying gas-powered vehicles for its own fleet, switching to zero-emission heavy-duty trucks and cars, the administration detailed in a fact sheet.

“The federal government is the largest customer in the world. This aligns the government’s enormous buying power with the nation’s climate goals. Shifting to clean energy — in federal buildings, vehicles and power purchases — and using clean building materials for infrastructure projects will speed the transition to a low-carbon economy. It will help scale up efficiency and renewable power,” said John Bowman, managing director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Speaking earlier this week at an American Clean Power Association conference, Biden’s national climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, said the administration hopes the effort will enhance “the ability of states and localities to build off those contracts and take advantage of the breadth of the purchasing power of the federal government.”

Biden has said private-sector help and state and local efforts are also key to his net-zero vision beyond what the federal government can do. Republicans who want U.S. action on climate change push for private initiatives, including those that keep natural gas, nuclear power and other efforts in a diverse mix.

“With this action, he’s telling millions of Americans who provide most of the energy we use every day that he thinks they should be thrown out of work. What’s worse, he wants to use the power of the federal government to do it,” said Sen. John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, and the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“This is not build back better — it’s another backbreaking move to build bigger bureaucracy. America needs an all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Barrasso said.

Biden’s legislative efforts toward sharply curbing emissions and taking other steps to slow global warming remain hard-fought in a narrowly divided Congress, but the Democratic leadership has said it hopes for a vote on a sweeping spending proposal before the Christmas break.

That Build Back Better bill includes $555 billion marked for tax credits, spending and other incentives to promote wind and solar power

  electric vehicles
climate-minded agriculture and forestry programs and other clean energy ideas, some at the federal and community level and some earmarked for American homes.

Read: Solar tax credits and heat pump rebates: All the ways Build Back Better could incentivize cleaner energy at home

How the administration will pay for the federal clean-energy plans further detailed Wednesday wasn’t immediately clear. The infrastructure bill Biden signed into law last month contains $7.5 billion to build a network of electric vehicle chargers, for instance, but other aspects of the administration’s plan may be constrained by agency budget allocations.

Supply-chain shortages have also been an issue when it comes to select EV and solar components, for instance.

Read: Pete Buttigieg fires back after Elon Musk blasts federal spending on EVs, saying there are ‘things that don’t happen on their own’

Environmental watchdog Climate Action Tracker has warned that under current policies, excluding proposals, the world is on track for 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels, pushed there largely by the emissions created by burning fossil fuels for electricity and vehicles. Scientists have said the planet should stay below a 1.5-degree increase to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis, including droughts, shore erosion, flooding, wildfires and more.

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