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While there is a lot the U.S. government can do to curb climate change, it still will need the private sector to be a pivotal partner (especially in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling limiting the power of the EPA). Working with business remains one of the “suite of tools” the Biden administration is harnessing to reach its ambitious net-zero goals in line with the Paris Agreement, according to the federal government’s top climate and environment leaders.
Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate advisor, and Michael Regan, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, stressed the centrality of the private sector in curbing carbon emissions, saying at a panel at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival (the day before the Supreme Court’s ruling) that they need business on board and not in opposition, and to let competition be a driver for acceleration of innovation in the clean energy space. The long-term business buy-in may be crucial if the U.S. administration changes to a Republican-run government, which has been far less aligned with the clean energy shift.
President Biden has pushed to involve business in the climate discussion since the start of his term, says McCarthy. “He’s always been looking at this as something that isn’t a fight against the private sector, but a way to attract the private sector,” she says. Setting ambitious goals—net-zero emissions no later than 2050—has been successful in attracting investment in different low-emission sectors, from offshore wind to electric vehicles. “When we first knocked on the door of the automakers and said, ‘Hey, we got to go to EVs,’ they were like ‘Yeah, how fast?’”
The government is working on all fronts to advance its goals. That includes Congressional investment, EPA regulation of fossil fuels and carbon emissions, and even the Defense Production Act, which Biden invoked earlier this month to accelerate domestic production of clean energy. But private investment must complement the public tools. “We need to work together to support this shift,” says McCarthy.
Neither McCarthy nor Regan are naive about the parts of private industry that are unwilling to budge, particularly big oil and gas. But Regan counters that with optimism. “A lot of my conversations with the private sector are very constructive,” he says. “My job as EPA Administrator is to provide the rules for the road, so that we can get this long-term investment, so that our country can be competitive.”
With clean energy innovation accelerating and becoming cheaper, it’s already attractive to businesses. “There is a capitalistic aspect of this,” Regan says. Private enterprises are competing in the clean marketplace to become international players and export their new tech, creating jobs in the process. “Clean energy is the winner, whether you like it or not,” McCarthy says. “The only thing we’re going to try to continue to do is go faster.”
With still a good while to go until 2050, and a need for consistent action over the upcoming decades, the leadership of the private sector will be particularly crucial if the political administration changes, either in the midterms or in the 2024 presidential election. “We believe that we have set some very aggressive time lines and goals, but once American innovation ingenuity kicks in, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Regan tells Fast Company. “The private sector is figuring out how they can be part of the next generation, instead of looking at how they can drag their feet a lot longer.”