WASHINGTON — Now that the biggest, most powerful tools President Biden had hoped to use to fight climate have been removed, the White House is putting together smaller, less effective policies that could still help the nation reduce its environmentally warming pollution if nor at peak levels that Mr. Biden once promised.
The apparent death in Senate climate change legislation that should have been at the heart of Mr. Biden’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions comes just weeks after the Supreme Court made a decision that strengthened the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, the second largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States.
Legal scholars say the judges’ decision will in turn set a precedent that could limit the federal government’s power to enact future climate regulations for other key sources of heat-trapping emissions, including cars and trucks.
Experts say the eroding of those policies now makes it all but impossible for the United States to meet Mr. Biden’s goal of cutting the country’s emissions by 50 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. That’s the amount scientists say the United States needs to reduce emissions to do its part to avoid the most catastrophic near-term effects of climate change.
The Biden administration’s environmental agenda
President Biden is pushing for tougher regulations but faces a narrow path to reaching his goals in the fight against global warming.
And if the world’s largest economy doesn’t keep its word on reducing emissions, analysts say it will lose any leverage to force other nations to reduce theirs.
“Manchin’s decision and the Supreme Court decision destroyed the edifice that the Biden administration built to achieve this very ambitious climate goal,” said Michael Wara, climate policy expert at Stanford University.
“And they only have a few pieces left, and now they’re trying to put together a structure out of those few, smaller, less coherent pieces,” Mr. Wara added. “It’s much more difficult. The 50 percent target was incredibly ambitious, even with all the tools Biden had. But with what they have left, they can still achieve a significant portion of it.”
Here are some of the ways leaders could still reduce greenhouse gas emissions:
regulate cars and trucks
Vehicles are the nation’s largest source of pollution that is warming the planet, and experts say phasing out the use of gas-powered cars is crucial to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Mr. Biden has directed the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to write a transformative new regulation to curb tailpipe pollution and accelerate the nation’s transition to electric vehicles.
In its most ambitious form, the new regulation, which most likely wouldn’t be complete until 2023 or 2024, would force automakers to double sales of enough electric vehicles to meet Mr. Biden’s goal of having half of all in the United States vehicles sold would be fully electric by 2030. But after the Supreme Court decision limiting the EPA’s powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the agency may scale back its ambitions for fear that such a bold new move could also be quashed by the courts.
Control pollution from power plants
Coal and gas-fired power plants are the country’s second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. While the Environmental Protection Agency was blocked by the Supreme Court from enacting a sweeping, ambitious rule that would shut down coal- and gas-fired power plants, the agency still plans to enact a more modest rule that would force electric utilities to shut down theirs reduce greenhouse gas emissions and potentially install carbon dioxide pollution capture and capture technologies, although this expensive technology is not yet widely available.
The agency is also planning stricter limits on other types of pollution from power plants — like mercury, smog and soot — that aren’t greenhouse gases. The idea is that tackling these pollutants could force electric utilities to clean up or shut down the dirtiest plants, such as coal-fired power plants, which produce more carbon dioxide than gas-fired power plants.
Focus on methane
Carbon dioxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, is the planet’s most abundant and dangerous greenhouse gas, but methane, emitted into the atmosphere by leaks from oil and gas wells, is a close second. It remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time than carbon dioxide, but packs a greater punch while it lasts. According to some estimates, methane has 80 times the heat storage capacity of carbon dioxide for the first 20 years in the atmosphere.
In the coming months, the EPA plans to enact tougher new regulations to curb methane leaks from oil and gas wells, a move that could reduce a significant portion of the country’s overall greenhouse gas pollution. Legal experts say that unlike regulations on power plants and cars, the methane rule has a good chance of withstanding legal challenges.
Rally action at state level
Without federal action on climate change, climate policy at state level will play a more important role. Almost half of the states have already adopted a significant climate policy. Leading the way is California, which is expected to finalize a state-wide first regulation in the coming weeks that will require all new cars sold in the state to be electric or zero-emissions by 2035. Seventeen other states are close to enacting the same rule if it happens in Sacramento.
California also requires that 100 percent of its electricity be generated from carbon-free sources by 2045. Twenty-one other states have versions of this clean electricity standard, and several are driving legislation for even stricter versions.
Experts say if enough states continue to press ahead with aggressive plans to cut carbon emissions, it could help the United States lower its emissions, though not at levels close to what could be achieved through federal action .