‘Tis the season to be merry… and to be graded. As students across the country anxiously await their report cards, we thought it would be a good time to ask climate experts to rate the United States’ efforts to address the issue over the past year.
They were more than happy to play together.
“As a sustainability professor, grading is very much in our work dialogue,” one respondent told us. Another said, “I’m finishing up my fall semester class right now, so grades are on my mind.”
However, the stake is much greater for the planet than for their students. It will almost certainly be the hottest year on record, and time for meaningful action is running out. Although the US made great efforts when the Inflation Reduction Act began to roll out, it fell short of its potential with incomplete work on issues such as permitting reform, not to mention approving a massive drilling project in Alaska not.
While experts differed on the grade they assigned, all agreed that the country has a lot of homework to do if it hopes to pass the planet’s toughest test.
CEO, Rewiring America
Let’s start with the highest grade, from Ari Matusaik, who leads the electrification nonprofit Rewriting America. In awarding an A-, he praised the billions of dollars the Department of Energy and other agencies have begun awarding under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA. The landmark law ushered in a record level from investing in clean energy projects, from solar to battery manufacturing. But even as that money begins to flow, he noted, “we’re already headed in the right direction.”
“Sales of heat pumps outperform oil and gas furnaces for the second year in a row and by the end of 2023 electric vehicles representing almost 9 percent of total light-duty vehicle sales,” he told Grist. And this, he said, is “far beyond what experts say is the tipping point for large-scale adoption.”
Former US Representative, founder of RepublicEn.org
Bob Inglis is an avowed conservative, a former congressman who represented South Carolina, and a committed advocate for climate action. He awarded the country a “high B+,” largely because he sees momentum to address climate change building on the political right.
“Young conservatives want action,” he said, adding that Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to promote sustainability. He cited bipartisan efforts low-emission cement and holding countries with dirty production accountable as examples.
That focus on foreign pollution is of particular interest to Inglis, who would like to see the United States move toward what he called “a carbon border adjustment mechanism” that taxes emissions-intensive imports. The European Union is in the process of implementing such a system, and will initially target sectors like cement, iron and steel, aluminium, fertilisers.
“It uses the price of access to the US market to basically hold the rest of the world accountable for negative externalities,” said Inglis, who also founded RepublicEn.org to promote market-driven solutions to the climate crisis. But pulling that off could take time, especially with a party beholden to the politics of former President Donald Trump, whom Inglis referred to as the “angel of death in the Republican primary.”
Director of the Energy Justice Program at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund
One grade landed squarely in the middle of the spectrum: a C from Jean Su, the program director for energy justice at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.
Su praised the Biden administration’s announcement that it is stepping up efforts to curb emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide in the 20 years after its release into the atmosphere. She also heaped praise on the IRA’s funding for renewable energy and community solar, as well as stricter fuel efficiency requirements for cars and light trucks.
“However, the Biden administration’s fossil fuel record undermines that progress,” she said.
Like others, she was disappointed by the administration’s approval of the Willow oil drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope. The project is expected to release more than 249 million tons of CO2 over 30 years once the 600 million barrels it produces are drilled and burned. That’s the equivalent of adding about 2 million cars to the road every year. She also condemned his green-lighting of liquefied natural gas exports, as well as his support for a controversial natural gas pipeline in Appalachia.
A recent Center for Biological Diversity analysis, she noted, found that fossil fuel projects approved by the Biden administration “threaten to wipe out progress on climate emissions from the Inflation Reduction Act and other climate policies.”
More 2023 year in review:
Vice President of Energy and Innovation at the University of Houston
The only thing that saved the nation from earning an F from Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of chemistry and petroleum engineering, was the generous curve he used. His litany of laments was long.
For starters, the United States still hasn’t made meaningful progress in reforming the permitting process for new electricity transmission. “No projects at scale are likely to move forward without it,” he warned. Although the White House made an effort at this much-needed step was that effort mired in congress politics..
Interest rates were another drag, he added. Higher rates have made it much more challenging for investors to support new clean energy projects such as offshore wind. And even if there was more momentum to break ground, he fears there are not enough plans to provide the workers needed to build it. “We have not really developed programs at scale that will deliver the right workforce at the right time for the projects,” he wrote.
Even the year’s bright spot — EV sales — dimmed in what Krishnamoorti calls a cooling of “the best story of climate progress.” Some obstacles he sees hindering greater adoption include supply chain issues, the cost of EVs and inadequate infrastructure. Reducing load times further would also help.
The rise of NIMBYism is another concern for Krishnamoorti. He attributes opposition to things like wind and solar farms to a “sugarcoating of the bottlenecks and the trade-offs needed for the energy transition – there is a narrative that energy transition technologies don’t require trade-offs and there are no bottlenecks .”
“NIMBYism dictates every project,” he noted. “Unless there is clarity about the true costs of US climate programs and the impact they will have – we will not move forward.”
Associate Scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Centre
Anna Liljedahl, a hydrologist with a focus on the Arctic, had no doubt the US would fail. Her reasoning was simple: Many patents, including climate technologies that would help mitigate the problem, were locked away from the public. Although patents are a matter of public record, they grant those who own them exclusive rights to the technology and prevent others from developing or exploiting it commercially for years.
“I’m betting a lot is on alternative and low-cost energy solutions,” she said. “Until that declassification is lifted, I’m giving our country the lowest possible grade — no matter what else happened during the year.”
Physicist and Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley
Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, said it was unclear exactly what the U.S. grade should be given its mixed performance. For this reason he assigns an incomplete.
He echoed the near-universal praise others have had for the Inflation Reduction Act, but said the impact of that landmark climate legislation remains unrealized. Any gains that may have come from the Biden administration’s signature bill were at least somewhat offset by its passage the Willow Project.
Yet Kammen has the potential for real progress in the climate agreement the United States and China signed last month. Finding rare common ground on the issue, the two superpowers agreed to “sufficiently accelerate” the deployment of clean energy in an effort to begin displacing fossil fuels and addressing the climate crisis.
“The Sunnylands agreement between the US and China could restore the international climate investment and progress effort,” Kammen said.
Climate activist, author and, yes, an emeritus member of the Grist Board
Kammen wasn’t just one to hand out unfinished business. Although environmentalist Bill McKibben praised the investments already made under the IRA, he called such efforts only “half the battle.”
“[They] hit completely on the other half — the dirty energy side,” says McKibben, the founder of Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 for action on climate and justice. But, he added, there are ways to make up for it — especially through recent efforts to curb it build out the domestic production capacity of liquefied natural gas.
“A decision to block new export licenses for LNG permits would be the biggest single move possible on our planet right now to slow the fossil fuel chase,” he wrote. “And give them lots and lots of extra credit.”
Senior climate scientist, Project Drawdown
Climate scientist Kate Marvel was not terribly impressed with the country’s efforts and also called the US an incomplete one. Although the general trend line is in the right direction, the country’s efforts are not urgent. “Total emissions in the U.S. are falling (mostly due to declines in coal), but not nearly fast enough to meet Paris Agreement targets,” she said.
While she noted that federal legislation such as the IRA, bipartisan infrastructure act and the CHIPs Act have all helped accelerate the deployment of clean energy, the need for faster action in 2023 has become abundantly clear. “The toll of climate disasters this year has been heavy: deadly wildfires, devastating floods, brutal heat waves and smoky skies,” Marvel said. “Climate change has come to the US, and warming is accelerating. Let’s hope climate action also accelerates.”