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Good News for the Earth: Protecting Public Lands, Manufacturing Electric Vehicles

President Joe Biden ordered a pause on new oil and gas leases on public lands in an executive order issued Jan. 27 to address the climate crisis. He also committed his administration to an ambitious conservation goal — to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and coastal seas by 2030, which brought cheers from people of faith and others committed to caring for creation.

Biden's commitment to conserve 30 percent of U.S. land by 2030 will require a huge increase in protected areas. The U.S. is conserving around 26 percent of its coastal waters, but only about 12 percent of its land in a largely natural state, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. To reach the "30 by 30" target will require conserving an additional area twice the size of Texas, more than 440 million acres, within the next 10 years.

President Biden’s executive order places a pause

That “30 by 30” target is backed by scientists who argue that reaching it is critical both to fighting the climate crisis and to protecting the estimated 1 million species at risk of extinction. For many people of faith, this is just good stewardship of the land. Biden also pledged to commit to "30 by 30" for similar reasons: “protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates, and helping leverage natural climate solutions.” 

One of those climate solutions is for the administration to keep the oil and gas on those public lands in the ground. Though the federal government owns about 640 million acres of land (about 28 percent of all the land in the U.S.), most of it isn’t managed in a way that meets the "30 by 30" standard, in part because resources, including oil and gas, are regularly extracted from much of it. 

Fossil fuels extracted from federal lands and waters contribute nearly a quarter of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. That is a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. President Biden’s executive order places a pause on all new federal oil and gas leases, which helps keep fossil fuels in the ground. 

Investors are skeptical of all but the most profitable investments in fossil fuels

In past years, companies rushed to acquire oil and gas fields and bring the crude oil or natural gas to market. Now, analysts say, investors are skeptical of all but the most profitable investments in fossil fuels because it is not clear there will be demand for them — especially as many governments strive to meet the requirements of the 2015 Paris Accord. For instance, the Trump Administration recently held a lease sale for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that did not entice many buyers and those that did bid modestly.

At first glance General Motors’s chief executive Mary T. Barra’s announcement — just a day after Biden signed an executive order on climate change — that the company will aim to sell only zero-emission cars and trucks by 2035 may seem disconnected. However, the benefits of pausing resource extraction while simultaneously turning to more efficient vehicles are significant.

“We are doing this to build a sustainable business,” Dane Parker, the General Motor’s chief sustainability officer, said in an interview. “We want to have a business in 15 years that’s a thriving business.” GM has already committed to spending $27 billion to introduce 30 electric vehicle models by 2025. 

“We want to have a business in 15 years that’s a thriving business.”

On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately begin developing tough new tailpipe pollution regulations, designed to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. GM’s announcement provides momentum to that plan, signaling the nation’s biggest automaker’s plans are congruent with the administration’s single largest policy to fight the climate crisis.

But while GM’s announcement occurred in the weeks after the election, five of its competitors: BMW, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and Volvo, had already committed themselves to tougher fuel economy standards in a deal with California. 

The good news for the planet is that, at the same time that President Biden is protecting public lands and discouraging the extraction of oil and gas, GM and other automobile manufacturers are developing vehicles powered by electricity. Maybe we do have a chance of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — the goal of the Paris Accord — and truly become good stewards of the earth. 

Photo by Marc Heckner on Unsplash

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