Biden directs billions in federal spending power to climate change
President Joe Biden continues to make good on his campaign pledge to accelerate progress on climate change, rapidly working down the list of what he can accomplish on his own in his early days in office.
On Wednesday, January 27, he will sign a second set of executive orders and memorandums on climate change that promise to bring about major changes in US energy policies and priorities: directing federal agencies to purchase US-made, zero-emissions vehicles and carbon-free electricity, halting nearly all new oil and gas leases on public lands, and eliminating most fossil-fuel subsidies.
Biden also placed climate change at the center of national security planning, requiring federal agencies to evaluate how increasingly severe heat waves, fires, floods, and famines could inflame global conflicts. The actions will also begin the process of creating bolder emissions reductions targets for the US under the Paris climate agreement.
The latest directives follow Biden’s climate actions on his first day in office, which included kick-starting the process of rejoining the Paris agreement and establishing new regulations on methane emissions, vehicle fuel economy standards, and much more.
A big market boost
The orders will provide a major boost to the domestic market for renewables like wind, solar and geothermal plants, as well as electric or hydrogen vehicles. They will direct billions of federals dollars to these industries while creating regulatory certainty that will make it easier to finance new projects and factories, says Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC.
The vehicle order, for instance, could eventually add up to around 650,000 government cars, trucks, and buses, potentially increasing the size of the domestic market by nearly 40%. Only an estimated 1.6 million plug-in electric vehicles had been sold in the US as of late last year, and fewer than 10,000 hydrogen vehicles since 2012, according to InsideEVs.
Agencies, however, will probably not replace vehicles until they reach the end of their useful lives, so the full turnover will surely take years.
The full text of the executive order states that the federal government will use all of its purchasing authority to achieve a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035, reiterating a key goal of Biden’s since the campaign.
“Transforming the American electric sector to produce power without carbon pollution will be a tremendous spur to job creation and economic competitiveness in the 21st century, not to mention the benefits to our health and our environment,” Biden said during a press conference.
But it’s not yet clear how the order will work or what it will achieve in the next few years, including whether it will require agencies to obtain a certain percentage or all of their electricity through low-carbon sources like wind, solar and nuclear power. It’s also not immediately apparent how government agencies will reach those goals given limited control over the mix of sources generating electricity on local grids.
Erin Sikorsky, deputy director of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, DC, applauded the order’s focus on national security.
Without incorporating detailed assessments of increasingly volatile climate conditions, she says, the US won’t recognize the potential for regional conflicts that can stem from things like prolonged droughts; can’t properly prepare and equip its overseas troops and bases; and won’t grasp how power dynamics are likely to shift among nations and non-state actors. For instance, famines could boost recruitment among terrorist groups, and warming conditions could increase the economic output and regional influence of countries like Russia.
Elevating environmental justice
The new executive orders included numerous additional directives and announcements. Among them:
- Biden will host a climate summit with other world leaders on April 22, Earth Day, in a clear bid to reset the nation’s climate diplomacy efforts.
- He also directed agencies to take steps to address the outsize impact of environmental and climate threats on disadvantaged communities, and to ensure that they receive “40% of the benefits” from any related federal investments.
- The president also directed the secretary of agriculture to begin exploring ways of encouraging farming practices that can reduce emissions and store more carbon in soil. In addition, he called for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative to put Americans to work planting trees and otherwise restoring public lands and waters.
- A new memorandum elevates the role of science and expertise in federal policymaking, directing agencies to “make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.”
- Biden also set up or reestablished numerous climate and science advisory groups, including the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Interagency Council and a National Climate Task Force that will pull leaders from 21 agencies and departments.
The limits of executive orders
At this stage, Biden is effectively checking off the things he can accomplish on climate change through executive orders rather than pushing new laws through Congress.
But there are limits on how much he can achieve through this approach. Executive orders are effectively instructions on how federal agencies should operate, but they can’t reverse existing laws or create new powers for the presidency. Presidents also generally can’t spend money that Congress hasn’t already authorized, although they can direct how it’s spent, as Biden seems to be doing with clean electricity and vehicles.
The precise boundaries of what can and can’t be achieved through executive orders is a subject of heated debate and frequent court challenges. The other downside is that they can be unilaterally overturned from one administration to the next, as Trump did with many of President Barack Obama’s orders and Biden is now doing with Trump’s.
Accelerating the shift to zero-emissions technologies enough to prevent 2 ˚C of warming, the stated goal of the Paris agreement, will clearly require legislation. The real test for Biden’s climate agenda will be whether he can get that done with only slim Democratic control of the Senate.
IBM wants to build a 100,000-qubit quantum computer
Quantum computing holds and processes information in a way that exploits the unique properties of fundamental particles: electrons, atoms, and small molecules can exist in multiple energy states at once, a phenomenon known as superposition, and the states of particles can become linked, or entangled, with one another. This means that information can be encoded and manipulated in novel ways, opening the door to a swath of classically impossible computing tasks.
As yet, quantum computers have not achieved anything useful that standard supercomputers cannot do. That is largely because they haven’t had enough qubits and because the systems are easily disrupted by tiny perturbations in their environment that physicists call noise.
Researchers have been exploring ways to make do with noisy systems, but many expect that quantum systems will have to scale up significantly to be truly useful, so that they can devote a large fraction of their qubits to correcting the errors induced by noise.
IBM is not the first to aim big. Google has said it is targeting a million qubits by the end of the decade, though error correction means only 10,000 will be available for computations. Maryland-based IonQ is aiming to have 1,024 “logical qubits,” each of which will be formed from an error-correcting circuit of 13 physical qubits, performing computations by 2028. Palo Alto–based PsiQuantum, like Google, is also aiming to build a million-qubit quantum computer, but it has not revealed its time scale or its error-correction requirements.
Because of those requirements, citing the number of physical qubits is something of a red herring—the particulars of how they are built, which affect factors such as their resilience to noise and their ease of operation, are crucially important. The companies involved usually offer additional measures of performance, such as “quantum volume” and the number of “algorithmic qubits.” In the next decade advances in error correction, qubit performance, and software-led error “mitigation,” as well as the major distinctions between different types of qubits, will make this race especially tricky to follow.
Refining the hardware
IBM’s qubits are currently made from rings of superconducting metal, which follow the same rules as atoms when operated at millikelvin temperatures, just a tiny fraction of a degree above absolute zero. In theory, these qubits can be operated in a large ensemble. But according to IBM’s own road map, quantum computers of the sort it’s building can only scale up to 5,000 qubits with current technology. Most experts say that’s not big enough to yield much in the way of useful computation. To create powerful quantum computers, engineers will have to go bigger. And that will require new technology.
How it feels to have a life-changing brain implant removed
Burkhart’s device was implanted in his brain around nine years ago, a few years after he was left unable to move his limbs following a diving accident. He volunteered to trial the device, which enabled him to move his hand and fingers. But it had to be removed seven and a half years later.
His particular implant was a small set of 100 electrodes, carefully inserted into a part of the brain that helps control movement. It worked by recording brain activity and sending these recordings to a computer, where they were processed using an algorithm. This was connected to a sleeve of electrodes worn on the arm. The idea was to translate thoughts of movement into electrical signals that would trigger movement.
Burkhart was the first to receive the implant, in 2014; he was 24 years old. Once he had recovered from the surgery, he began a training program to learn how to use it. Three times a week for around a year and a half, he visited a lab where the implant could be connected to a computer via a cable leading out of his head.
“It worked really well,” says Burkhart. “We started off just being able to open and close my hand, but after some time we were able to do individual finger movements.” He was eventually able to combine movements and control his grip strength. He was even able to play Guitar Hero.
“There was a lot that I was able to do, which was exciting,” he says. “But it was also still limited.” Not only was he only able to use the device in the lab, but he could only perform lab-based tasks. “Any of the activities we would do would be simplified,” he says.
For example, he could pour a bottle out, but it was only a bottle of beads, because the researchers didn’t want liquids around the electrical equipment. “It was kind of a bummer it wasn’t changing everything in my life, because I had seen how beneficial it could be,” he says.
At any rate, the device worked so well that the team extended the trial. Burkhart was initially meant to have the implant in place for 12 to 18 months, he says. “But everything was really successful … so we were able to continue on for quite a while after that.” The trial was extended on an annual basis, and Burkhart continued to visit the lab twice a week.
The Download: brain implant removal, and Nvidia’s AI payoff
Leggett told researchers that she “became one” with her device. It helped her to control the unpredictable, violent seizures she routinely experienced, and allowed her to take charge of her own life. So she was devastated when, two years later, she was told she had to remove the implant because the company that made it had gone bust.
The removal of this implant, and others like it, might represent a breach of human rights, ethicists say in a paper published earlier this month. And the issue will only become more pressing as the brain implant market grows in the coming years and more people receive devices like Leggett’s. Read the full story.
You can read more about what happens to patients when their life-changing brain implants are removed against their wishes in the latest issue of The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
If you’d like to read more about brain implants, why not check out:
+ Brain waves can tell us how much pain someone is in. The research could open doors for personalized brain therapies to target and treat the worst kinds of chronic pain. Read the full story.
+ An ALS patient set a record for communicating via a brain implant. Brain interfaces could let paralyzed people speak at almost normal speeds. Read the full story.
+ Here’s how personalized brain stimulation could treat depression. Implants that track and optimize our brain activity are on the way. Read the full story.