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The bull case for Biden's climate agenda

The institutional hurdles in front of President-elect Joe Biden's energy and climate agenda are very formidable, but you can also imagine things breaking Biden's way — enough to set the country on a path toward the emissions cuts his platform envisions.

Why it matters: Biden aims to put the country on a path toward net-zero emissions by 2050 and 100% carbon-free power by 2035 — but Democrats face long odds of winning the Senate.

  • So big legislation is very unlikely and would be tough even with a 50-50 Senate that enabled VP-elect Kamala Harris to break ties.
  • Plus, regulations face litigation that could land before the conservative Supreme Court.

The big picture: All that said, a bunch of forces could move in tandem to help Biden despite those strong headwinds. Here's that bull case...

1. Preparations. Many have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, so there's no shortage of ideas for marshaling a government-wide approach that draws in many agencies.

  • "There have been hundreds of thousands of hours by think tanks, NGOs, academics, and lawyers preparing for really solid regulatory efforts," says Jeff Navin, who was the DOE's chief of staff during the Obama administration.
  • For instance, yesterday the Washington Post reported: "A team of former Obama administration officials and experts have created a 300-page blueprint laying out a holistic approach to the climate while avoiding some of the pitfalls."
  • Leah Stokes, a climate policy expert with UC Santa Barbara, points out that unlike in the early Obama era, nobody is pinning their hopes on a "magical" climate bill.
  • "Executive actions can focus on the tools that are already in the toolbox sooner and move them along faster," Stokes says. (BTW, the latest episode of "A Matter of Degrees," a podcast she co-hosts, delves into this.)

2. Economics. Clean energy is way cheaper than it was when Barack Obama took office, and many big power companies — like Duke and Southern — are vowing aggressive emissions curbs over the next few decades.

  • "These are not liberal, tree-hugging utilities. ... The transition to clean makes economic sense, it’s what their customers want, and it helps hedge against further carbon regulation swing," notes Navin, co-founder of Boundary Stone Partners, an advisory and lobbying firm that includes clean energy clients.
  • Electric vehicles offerings are becoming wider and batteries are getting cheaper.

3. Congress. There could be successful efforts to include clean energy and climate-related investments in a COVID-19 recovery package and/or infrastructure bill, even if moving a sweeping emissions bill won't happen.

4. Corporations. While legal fights await ambitious regulations, companies begin adapting to the rules anyway, Stokes says. Regulated industries “are probably going to start planning for those rules anyway even while litigation is pending. That all takes a long time,” she adds.

  • Plus, big companies are making pretty aggressive pledges these days. Some of them are kind of airy, but others are devoting real resources and doing tangible things.
  • We’re starting to see some big U.S. oil producers — Occidental and ConocoPhillips — move in the direction of European efforts.

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