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White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy joins Yahoo Finance's Akiko Fujita in discussing climate action under the Biden Administration.
AKIKO FUJITA: Gina McCarthy is the White House national climate advisor. She's the nation's first domestic climate czar in charge of implementing the Biden administration's ambitious climate agenda. McCarthy is no stranger to battling climate skeptics and foes. She's worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations and ran the EPA under President Obama.
I'm Akiko Fujita. And now I'm joined by Gina McCarthy, White House national climate advisor. Advisor McCarthy, it's great to talk to you today, one week out from what some have said is the most consequential UN climate change conference. I wonder if we can start with a bit of reflection.
You have been at the forefront of climate action for many decades. Prior to your current role, you were also the head of the EPA. Looking back, how do you think the climate conversation has evolved, particularly in a year, where you have seen where so many communities have experienced extreme weather events?
GINA MCCARTHY: Akiko, thank you, first of all, for inviting me to spend a little time with you. Let me give you my sense. As I can remember, when I was EPA commissioner and-- administrator, I should say, under President Obama, and a lot of the time and attention was paid on dealing with the climate deniers. That's not the case anymore.
I think people can see the wildfires and the droughts and feel the heat stress that we're all experiencing, the floods and hurricanes. People want answers to this. They want to face it.
And if you looked at the last IPCC report, it told us that we had to act with a sense of urgency. So President Biden is going to be moving and going to the COP to express this sense of urgency and to ensure that we capture this moment. He does not want to go there without absolutely showing the leadership of the United States is back.
We are going to talk about the commitments that President Biden made on day one, not just to rejoin the Paris Accord, but to actually move forward with really stringent goals that we're going to achieve. He wanted to make sure that we had those actions lined up. He went in with a whole of government attitude that everybody has to work together and make this work. That's what my job is about.
So we're taking strong domestic action. But we're also going there, knowing that we have allies like the EU, that recognize the urgency of the moment. So we have to be all about acting, all about accelerating the deployment of already existing clean energy technologies. We have to invest in the future.
And the most exciting thing for me, Akiko, is that he's not talking about this as sacrifice or about the planet. He's talking about this as a people problem, a recognition about our health and our economy, and how can we make choices to clean energy that's going to grow jobs, strengthen our economy, and win the 21st century? That is the framing that the president is going to go in with, in hopes that everyone can leave with a sense of urgency and opportunity.
AKIKO FUJITA: And on your point, we have seen the president say repeatedly that he wants to lead the global conversation on climate change. And yet, a week out from the start of this conference, Congress still hasn't reached an agreement on two key pieces of legislation that contain the core of the president's climate agenda. How much of that agenda still remains intact?
GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I would argue really that we've moved forward very quickly to already capture the moment to move forward on clean energy. We're already have identified billions of dollars in clean energy investments. But you're absolutely right. The president has identified a number of investments in both his infrastructure, investments that has bipartisan support. That's going to underpin some of the work we need to do on our transmission lines, on our electric vehicles, on how we start building back in a more resilient way.
But we also have a big climate package in here that the president is fully committed. And discussions are continuing. They're accelerating. We are very hopeful that this will pass. And we're going to keep pushing until we get the kind of investments that match our ambition.
AKIKO FUJITA: One of the key pillars of the Biden climate agenda has been this Clean Electricity Performance Program. For those who aren't as familiar, it essentially incentivizes utility companies to transition to clean energy and penalizes those that don't. Is that still on the table in discussions right now?
GINA MCCARTHY: Well, it seems pretty-- pretty clear that there are folks that disagree with the Clean Electricity Performance plan. And so we are looking both to continue those discussions, but even more importantly, to look at the many other ways in which we're going to make up for those reductions. So we have a lot of ways to get over the finish line.
Look, the president has committed to achieving net zero by 2050, to achieving clean electricity by 2035, and to recognize our commitment we have made on a nationally determined contribution to achieve at a 50% to 52% reduction in our emissions by 2030. This is going to be done. We're going to move forward with the kind of investments that are going to make that happen.
And while the CEPP was a really exciting opportunity, there are many others available to us. So no matter how you cut it, there are pathways to achieve these kind of reductions. And we're going to make them happen.
AKIKO FUJITA: So how do you get to that goal of decarbonizing the power grid by 2035 without CEPP?
GINA MCCARTHY: Well, there's already been some tremendous movement among the utility industry to recognize that clean electricity is not just the future, but it's cheaper. So if you look at the rate of transition to renewable energy over the past few years, it's been extraordinary. So our task is to move forward and accelerate that.
There are tax credit opportunities in this package that are going to do just that. So we have to look at those opportunities and also, recognize that in 2020, the fastest growing sector of electricity generation was solar. We know how to do this. Look at the offshore wind we have permitted in just this short period of time that President Biden has been here. We're talking about offshore in the Eastern coast, offshore in the Western coast. We're looking at New York and New Jersey. We're looking at the Gulf.
These are opportunities for up to three gigawatts of greenhouse gas reductions and electricity generated. And so we need to move forward. We are not going to be stopped by any one initiative. It is jam-packed with ideas that recognize that we have a clean energy future.
Just look at what it means to work with the automakers and the auto workers, to come to an agreement that electric vehicles are going to be 50% of our car sales by 2030. Transportation is the highest sector of our greenhouse gas emissions now, not the utility sector. We can make tremendous progress all through every sector.
We're looking at manufacturing and how to make progress there. We're looking at opportunities in our ports. We're looking at opportunities for investments in environmental justice. Because we know that the president has made a commitment for the benefits of clean energy and clean electricity to actually be first and foremost benefited by those environmental justice communities. So we can make this happen in a way that delivers environmental justice, delivers the kind of reductions we need, and provides the opportunities of the future to embed clean electricity as the way in which we grow our healthy, sustainable, and secure economy.
AKIKO FUJITA: Let's look ahead to the task at hand. A week from now, we've got COP26 kicking off in Glasgow. There's already some notable absences. Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country, by the way, is the second largest emitter, not attending; Russian President Vladimir Putin also reportedly not attending. When you think about the scale of a crisis you're trying to address, what does the US see is the key priorities?
GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I think we all know that under the prior administration, there was a lot of consternation. Because many of the leaders of a variety of countries did not attend. But we know that this COP is different. We know, and the president knows, and he's going to make this case, that the United States is back. And we intend to show leadership here once again.
He's showing that through our domestic actions. He's showing that through the investments that he is working with Congress to deliver. And when we get there, we are going to be meeting with what I already know would be more than 100 or 150 world leaders who are planning to attend.
And you're absolutely right that both China and Russia are key players in this. But don't give up. I know that there is an opportunity here and that they may attend. And even if they don't, I think they know there's going to be a lot of decisions made that are going to be important to them in their countries.
Just think about the Global Methane Pledge, that so many-- 150 countries have already signed. We will be there celebrating success. We will be there to accelerate action. We will be there to talk about the urgency of now. We think they will want to be there to ensure that their countries are counted in this effort. We will not get there without every country, and we fully expect that the work that Secretary Kerry has been making to reach out with these countries will pay off big time.
AKIKO FUJITA: What would you consider to be a successful outcome of COP26?
GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I want to make sure that the United States has significant opportunity to reduce our most global warming, our chemicals. We're talking about HFCs, which we've stepped out on. We're going to have a methane rule to show our leadership.
So getting the global community to continue to accelerate on those will buy us time. But the key deliverable for this is to make sure that 1.5 degrees stays on the table. And that will demand accelerated action. So we need to have the commitment across the world to actions that are going to advance.
It doesn't hurt at all that President Biden has-- has really upped the commitment that the US is making to $100 billion. That is two to four times what we've ever committed to before. And we also are working on an initiative to make sure that every developed country is working with low and middle income countries to support them in infrastructure investments that are going to be leaning towards a clean energy future instead of coal and fossil fuels.
AKIKO FUJITA: You mentioned that the conference is being held against a pretty challenging backdrop. There are real fears globally about the energy crunch that's happening. You look over in China. You've got a coal shortage shutting down some factory activity over in Europe. We've seen natural gas prices up more than 200% in the year and then here in the US, prices we haven't seen since 2014. Are you worried that the concerns around the energy crunch now could slow the action that's needed to cap global warming at 1 and 1/2 degrees?
GINA MCCARTHY: Well, I know that my colleagues in the White House are looking at this issue really closely. The two areas that are potentially impacted in the US are New England, my region of the world, as well as California. And in both instances, we're working with those states to identify opportunities to actually make sure that they don't have spike energy prices and that we look for every opportunity to reduce energy demand as well.
So we're going to be working on this nationally. And internationally, the question will become whether or not we can convince countries that the path to a secure and stable future and the path to lower energy costs is actually clean energy. So while you will have these times of opportunities for some to say that we need more coal or other fossil fuels as our first line of defense, I think our argument would be that we're moving to a clean energy future in the United States.
And that's our first defense against spiked energy prices. It's our opportunity to save every family in this country $500 a year in their energy cost. It is our opportunity to underpin a stable economy. And if we can all get behind that, we can recognize that there's always going to be challenges confronting us. But if we keep heading in that path forward, we have an opportunity to deliver a good future for our kids and a healthy and sustainable economy for ourselves now.
AKIKO FUJITA: White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, great to have you on today. Really appreciate the time.
GINA MCCARTHY: Great to be here. Thanks so much.