The COVID-19 pandemic wasn't all bad, a new Biden administration plan to fight climate change argues: It at least "highlighted major opportunities" to reduce travel demand and lower carbon emissions through "remote work and virtual interactions."
The plan—which President Joe Biden's Environmental Protection Agency and Energy, Transportation, and Housing departments released in January—aims to "eliminate nearly all greenhouse gas emissions" from the transportation sector by 2050, mostly through a transition to electric vehicles. Also included in the plan, however, is a controversial call to reduce "commuting miles" through "an increase in remote work and virtual engagements," including in education.
"Telework and other components of a digital economy … can improve convenience by reducing travel demand, especially for work commuting," the plan states. "The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted major opportunities for telework, with some studies showing the possibility of 10 percent long-term reduction in annual vehicle miles traveled." The plan goes on to identify "remote access to services like health care and education" as one of the "key determinants of future travel demand."
The administration's COVID-inspired call to reduce travel demand is certain to satisfy leading green energy groups, which have voiced similar rhetoric since the pandemic's onset. In April 2020, for example, the Rocky Mountain Institute touted "opportunities to reduce vehicle miles traveled via telework." But the plan is already prompting outrage among small business advocates, who point to the fact that more than 100,000 small businesses closed permanently during the first few months of the pandemic alone as owners dealt with decreased demand. For Job Creators Network president Alfredo Ortiz, that history would repeat itself if widespread telework was adopted in the name of climate change.
"Once again, the Biden administration is blindly pursuing a 'green' agenda despite the unintended consequences it poses to the economy and, more specifically, small businesses," Ortiz told the Washington Free Beacon. "Small businesses struggled to survive the pandemic and we don't need to return to a similar environment in which in-person consumer demand is severely compromised."
Even leading Democrats have echoed Ortiz's rhetoric. Just minutes into her third term as Washington, D.C., mayor, Democrat Muriel Bowser in early January pressed the White House to take "decisive action" to get federal workers back in their physical offices. While Biden promised in March that the "vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person," he has so far failed to heed Bowser's call. D.C.'s office occupancy sat at just 45 percent before Christmas last year, according to Kastle Systems.
The Transportation and Housing departments did not return requests for comment. The emissions plan "will be followed by more detailed sector-specific plans … to realize an improved and sustainable transportation future," according to a Jan. 10 Energy Department press release.
U.S. energy use declined to its lowest level in decades during the pandemic, a trend that also led to a 10 percent reduction in emissions. Travel has since "largely returned to pre-pandemic levels," the Biden administration's January plan states, and U.S. carbon emissions subsequently rose last year. "The pandemic has shown that rapid change can occur in both total transportation demand and how that demand is met," the plan notes.
Prominent climate change activists have long compared the issue to COVID. In an August 2020 blog post, liberal billionaire Bill Gates said that climate change "could be worse" than the pandemic and could one day make "people afraid to leave home."