Updated: Oct 23, 2021
By Bella Corpora
The bipartisan infrastructure plan, which has been championed by the Biden administration, has been coined as one of the greenest infrastructure plans in American history. Everyone thought the plan would include innovative solutions sufficient to tackle the predicted climate future, which the IPCC and UN Secretary-General have labeled a “code red for humanity.” Unfortunately, the plan disappoints and fails to fulfill its high expectations.
One of the main highlights of the plan includes increased funding for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, a potential method to combat the climate crisis. Despite being touted as a climate solution, in reality, CCS prolongs increasingly catastrophic fossil fuel use, which will continue to harm the environment and climate. Essentially, CCS is a technological filtering mechanism capable of capturing greenhouse gas emissions at point sources (ie. power plants) before they can escape into the atmosphere. (For more information on CCS and how it is currently used, you can check out my two previous blogs.) Emissions can later be directly removed from the atmosphere through carbon removal, performed, for example, via direct air capture technology, but CCS and carbon removal have distinctly different outcomes in the climate fight.
CCS and carbon removal have been allocated over $8.5 billion in funding within the infrastructure plan. Already, there are some up-and-coming direct air capture projects, including Climeworks in Switzerland and Carbon Engineering in Canada, that benefit the environment by ensuring a net-removal or net-negative drawdown of climate pollutants, such as carbon dioxide. More carbon removal methods will continue to appear in our future , such as increased reforestation and wetlands management programs. CCS, however, generally still produces a net-increase of GHG emissions in the atmosphere. The bipartisan infrastructure plan intends to launch new CCS projects and will continue to increase emissions in the atmosphere and damage our planet.
Despite underdelivering on Biden’s campaign promises, the bipartisan infrastructure plan will still greatly benefit the environment. Within the plan are funding mechanisms for electric vehicle charging expansion, pollution clean-ups at Superfund sites, and investments in emissions reduction technologies like CCS. (On a side note: the administration also intends to sell reserve oil barrels; why not just maintain them rather than allowing them to be sold and burned?)
CCS is a method for fossil fuel companies to sequester out the carbon they are emitting to reduce their impact on the atmosphere and environment while continuing to produce their products. Unfortunately, CCS still has greater than 7% of emissions escapage. This amount may not sound like much, but these further additions of emissions and resulting warming are dangerous to our already fragile global climate system. Also within the plan, there are general allotments for CCS use towards enhanced oil recovery. No matter how they are described by supporters, CCS and the bipartisan infrastructure plan prolong the life of the fossil fuel industry. Therefore, they are not win-win solutions.
By investing heavily in CCS and prolonging the fossil fuel sector, the bipartisan infrastructure plan has numerous environmental justice implications that must be considered. Dangerous oil spills have occurred in the ocean that disrupted local maritime ecosystems and economies, such as after the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills. Recently, there was a gas leak that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico causing the “eye of fire.” There are also many communities affected by improper decommissioning processes of local hydrocarbon drilling sites, as seen in the Ecuadorian Amazon by Texaco/Chevron. Local residents there were exposed to toxic petrochemicals when no proper chemical disposal was conducted upon the termination of the project.
Besides the negative environmental and human impacts of widespread CCS use, we should also take into consideration the types of energy that will be used to run power plants equipped with CCS technology. Will they be powered by renewable energy, and if so, where will that funding come from? Funding more renewable energy programs would be more equitable and cheaper in the long run than furthering the fossil fuel sector, which continues to harm global ecosystems across all spans of life. Our society should focus on environmental protection and global climate equity, with greater consideration for future generations and the current populations facing the brunt of the climate impacts, particularly those in the Global South. It is important to remember that Global South nations have historically produced the least emissions, but they will face the largest climate impacts. Less than 20 developed countries, including the United States, have produced 80% of emissions since the Industrial Revolution.
Now facing a great energy transition, we have an opportunity to shift from maintaining the fossil fuel status quo to revolutionizing the renewable energy development process and securing a habitable planet for current and future generations. Solar and wind have already proven to be cheaper than many fossil-based energies for electrical production, and grid managers, through a portfolio approach, can maintain a sustainable portfolio of energy sources to provide reliable, clean energy throughout the year.
We also have an opportunity to build a foundation of effective policy to make this energy revolution happen. For example, as seen in Germany, Feed-In Tariffs can be used to pay people who own solar panels for supplying their excess electricity to the grid, and they can be used in other countries to accelerate the growth of new technologies. (Hamilton will talk about FITs next week!) Innovative policies like FITs can support the United States’ energy security and independence goals while also promoting green, sustainable technologies. Although renewables have environmental impacts in local regions, largely at mining sites for lithium, cobalt, and copper, they do not have continued effects on the atmosphere from emissions outputs.
Considering the recent IPCC report, we know we only have about 6 more years before the climate fight will be irrecoverable, pushing us towards a 3+ degree C warmer world. Therefore, it is crucially important that we advocate for a revolutionary and more nuanced infrastructure plan, one that can truly save the environment.
Bella Corpora grew up in San Diego, California and attended the University of California, Berkeley. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Bachelor of Science in Society and Environment. Currently, she is an intern with the United Nations Environment Programme working on a team that focuses on Disaster Risk Reduction and in partnership with the Government of Norway's Oil for Development Programme. In addition to her internship, she’s a Research Fellow through American University in Washington DC. There, she conducts research on climate change, carbon removal technology, climate and oil policy, and environmental justice issues, and since early 2021, she has also been part of a carbon removal working group. You can read more about her at isabellacorpora.com.