Editor’s note: Hours after his inauguration, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to re-enter the United States into the Paris Agreement.
President-elect Joe Biden has vowed that one of his first priorities after taking office Jan. 20 will be to get the United States back in the Paris Agreement, a global pact to slow climate change.
Practically speaking, the move is little more than a signal of collaboration to the rest of the world after President Donald Trump left the accord. But its message should guide the nation’s energy policy, environmental advocates say, potentially spurring investments in technology like electric cars and solar power. In Florida, that could mean key changes for a state imperiled by rising heat and seas but that has been slow to act on those threats.
“Any national policy that is going to help mitigate the worst possible climate impacts is going to have measurable benefits,” said Bradley Marshall, a staff attorney in Florida for the advocacy group Earthjustice.
The Paris Agreement is aspirational. It does not prescribe exact methods for eliminating emissions behind global warming but establishes targets for avoiding worrisome temperature thresholds. It encourages more environmentally-friendly technologies and financial support from wealthier countries to help developing nations adapt.
Biden has pledged to put the United States on a course for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Though he was not the first pick of many climate change activists in the Democratic primary, Biden’s staff built a platform in consultation with progressive leaders on the issue. The President-elect’s plan for lowering emissions includes targeting methane pollution from oil and gas companies, funding research on new fuels and requiring managers behind federal infrastructure projects to consider climate change in planning.
Ultimately, meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement will require overhauling the American energy economy, experts say, moving away from gas-burning power plants and cars.
That will mean significant shifts in Florida, which is full of busy highways and natural gas plants. The state government for years avoided any serious discussion of climate change. Recently, elected leaders have started to talk about the issue, focusing on how to adapt to rising seas but not how to cut down on human causes of warming. Critics say the politicians are concerned with offending power companies, which are big political donors.
The state, the third most populous in the country, holds a major role in U.S. energy consumption. Florida used more gasoline than all but two other states in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration; it consumes more energy than all but three.
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Despite its moniker, the Sunshine State produces only about 3 percent of its energy by solar power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“Obviously we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of headroom to do that,” said Katie Chiles Ottenweller, southeast director for the advocacy group Vote Solar.
While several large-scale projects are already in development for three of Florida’s investor-owned power companies, solar will make up less than 15 percent of each utility’s energy mix when they are completed.
Environmentalists say a Biden administration could provide incentives to boost solar production, as well as the development of batteries that support renewable energy. The field might offer an attractive policy option for Biden early in his term, Ottenweller said, because it has backing on both sides of the political aisle.
Tax credits and government incentives could similarly encourage the production and use of electric vehicles, advocates said. The same would go for energy efficiency, with strategies like installing modern windows and roofs to limit wasted heat and air conditioning from homes.
“A lot of these things are going to happen without Paris,” and some with bipartisan approval, said Shi-Ling Hsu, an environmental law professor at Florida State University. “That said, an international agreement could still be really important. If we actually made some progress in the next two or four years, it would still make it easier to do other things.”
One proposal on the wish list of clean energy proponents is carbon pricing.
A bill to create a carbon fee has been introduced in Congress before, by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, with other Florida backers including Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, and the recently retired Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples. It failed to gain traction.
If reintroduced, the law would charge importers and producers of the energy resources that result in planet-warming emissions. The idea is that businesses will only move away from fossil fuels when it hurts their profits. The government would steer money from fees to the American people through a dividend.
“No one should be able to pollute a planet without cost,” said Bill Marshall, co-leader of the Pinellas chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby. “We’re all basically using the planet’s atmosphere as a sewer.”
Many Florida power companies are already preparing for that eventuality. In annual filings with regulators, some include not only the expected cost of natural gas, but the potential cost of carbon emissions when looking at plans for the next decade.
Biden’s campaign previously told the Washington Post that the President-elect supports putting a price on carbon, and his pick to lead the Treasury Department signaled that could come through a tax.
Short of a fee, the federal government might toughen standards for emissions at power plants through laws like the Clean Air Act, said Marshall, of Earthjustice. Biden has said he will advise both the Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department to pursue polluters who do not follow federal rules. Because such policies apply across states, they could have particular impact in areas like Florida, where state regulators have continued to approve gas-burning power plants.
Florida, unlike most states, has not established targets for how much of its power will come from renewable technology, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Emissions pledges here have instead been adopted sporadically at the local level. When Trump announced his intent to ditch the Paris Agreement early in his presidency, hundreds of U.S. mayors, including St. Petersburg’s Rick Kriseman and, at the time, Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn — both Democrats — promised to uphold its goals in their cities.
In the upper reaches of Florida’s power structure, though, the compact has continued to draw critics.
Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both Republicans, have said it will cause job losses and create higher energy costs for Americans. Opponents also take aim at the U.S. paying into a fund meant to help developing countries afford climate adaptation.
“The United States should never sign an unfair agreement with any other country that will hurt American jobs,” Scott’s spokesman McKinley Lewis wrote in a statement.
Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said improving solar power and energy efficiency could support local jobs. Throughout his campaign, Biden tried to frame his climate policies through the idea of growing new industries.
“You cannot export a job putting in a new air conditioner, a new roof, insulation, caulking,” Glickman said.
Any changes that occur will likely come slowly, said Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents the offshore oil and wind businesses. Crude oil and gas will still flow from rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico for years to come. It will take time to build more solar panels and electric cars.
“Whatever happens to our energy mix,” Milito said, “it will be a transition.”
The Biden effect in Florida is an ongoing series that looks at what the Biden Administration means for Florida.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.