December 18. By Michael Sales and Roger Luckmann.
The Biden administration climate plan is a work in progress that will certainly draw on the proposals we summarize here. We expect the plan will continue to evolve as Biden appoints his climate and environmental leadership team and formally takes the helm on January 20, and as political realities come into play.
Note to the Reader: This piece draws on four sources:
- Biden campaign proposals
- The Biden administration transition team documents (https://buildbackbetter.gov/priorities/climate-change/)
- The 2020 Democratic Party platform (https://democrats.org/where-we-stand/party-platform/).
These sources are mostly consistent with one another, but there are specific proposals that appear in one and not in others.
Given the truly lamentable climate record of the Trump administration, any significant effort to address climate change feels like coming upon an oasis after wandering for four very long years in the desert. If enacted, the climate plan proposed by President-elect Joe Biden earlier this year seems more like coming upon the Great Lakes! While critics have their concerns that the Biden plan is not equivalent to the Green New Deal, many find it to be quite ambitious, with a definite FDR/New Deal feel.
The electrification of transportation and buildings, a profound re-investment in rail services, many infrastructure enhancements, and a continuous concern for social equity are the repeated themes of this plan. Close attention is also paid to solidifying and expanding the base of the Democratic Party, with particular attention to labor unions and rural populations.
To climate activists, such as ECA Massachusetts, the Biden proposals are not surprising or radical. Some of us have been advocating for ambitious undertakings like this one for decades. But to see the incoming administration having already thought through the vision and quite a few of the requirements needed to achieve it is an inspiring relief after an era of denial.
The Big Picture
The Biden climate plan proposes to make a $2 trillion investment in climate mitigation and adaptation efforts by 2024 to set the United States “on an irreversible course to meet the ambitious climate progress that science demands,” to get us to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It also intends and expects to create millions of new green jobs in doing so.
Consistent with the long standing view held by his Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, and many others, Biden’s investments “will make sure the communities who have suffered the most from pollution are first to benefit — including low-income rural and urban communities, communities of color, and Native communities.”
Biden’s plan seeks to constrain the power of mega-corporations by making sure that those who work on these projects will have the opportunity to join labor unions and to engage in collective bargaining with all employers.
What will be involved?
Here are some of the key elements of the plan aimed at climate change mitigation:
- Achieve a carbon pollution-free U.S. electric power sector by 2035.
- Establish a technology-neutral Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard that includes wind, solar, energy storage, existing and advanced nuclear, hydropower and fossil energy with carbon capture.
- Build the next generation of electric grid transmission and distribution – including a high-voltage direct-current transmission backbone to move renewable energy long distances.
- Dramatically expand wind and solar energy deployment through community-based and utility-scale systems, aiming for 500 million solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines within five years.
- Set a target of reducing the carbon footprint of the U.S. building stock 50% by 2035.
- Set a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030.
- Energy retrofit four million buildings and weatherize two million homes over four years.
- Spur the construction of 1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units.
- Ensure that all U.S. government buildings become more energy efficient and ready to withstand climate change.
- Reestablish ambitious fuel economy standards.
- Promote electric vehicle (EV) adoption and manufacture through rebates and tax credits for consumers and manufacturers.
- Transition three million federal, state, and municipal fleet vehicles to zero-emission.
- Make significant public investment in EV charging, including 500,000 new charging stations by 2030.
- Position America as the global leader in the manufacture of EVs and parts.
- Set a goal for all new American-built buses to be zero-emission by 2030.
- Transition all 500,000 school buses in the U.S. to zero emissions.
- Commit to developing the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system.
- Ensure that municipalities of more than 100,000 people have clean-energy public transportation by 2030.
- Promote investment in infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of e-scooters.
- Promote and invest in climate-friendly farming and regenerative farming practices to restore the soil and build soil carbon.
- Support deployment of methane digesters to capture emissions and generate electricity.
- Reward farmers for carbon sequestration and emission reductions.
Research, Development and Innovation
Invest $400 billion over 10 years to supporta new, Advanced Research Project Agency for Climate (ARPA-C) aimed at identifying and developing affordable, game-changing technologies to help America achieve our 100% clean energy target, including:
- Low-cost grid-scale electric storage.
- Advanced nuclear reactors – smaller, safer, more efficient, low- or zero-waste and affordable.
- Technologies to produce low-cost hydrogen with renewable energy.
- Soil management, plant biology and agricultural techniques to remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground.
- Direct air capture of carbon dioxide.
- Carbon capture from carbon-emitting processes with sequestration.
Other Goals of the Plan
Biden proposes to tackle climate adaptation by making smart infrastructure investments to rebuild our roads, bridges, buildings, the electric grid and our water infrastructure in ways that will withstand a changing climate. He also will facilitate the development of regional climate resilience plans.
The plan envisions supporting a number of conservation and pollution-reduction efforts including a program plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells, protecting wildlife habitats, conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, requiring aggressive methane pollution limits, planting one million trees in urban areas and ensuring every community has access to safe drinking water.
The plan addresses environmental justice in a number of ways. It proposes to ensure that communities harmed by climate change and pollution are the first to benefit from the programs and policies implemented as part of the plan and that the federal government will “stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.”
Biden’s climate plan highlights the potential creation of millions of “good, union, middle class jobs” paying fair wages in infrastructure restoration, mitigation of environmental pollution, auto industry expansion, building retrofitting and other areas. Through retraining and other means, he commits “our country to fulfilling our obligation to all workers impacted by the energy transition, like coal miners and power plant workers and their communities.” Forty percent of overall benefits of spending in these areas is to go to disadvantaged and frontline communities. He also proposes “mobilizing the next generation of conservation and resilience workers through a Civilian Climate Corps to conserve our public lands, bolster community resilience, and address the changing climate.”
Biden also intends to work on rallying the rest of the world to address climate change and to “use every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions” to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He commits to making climate change a national security priority.
Money and Politics
Obviously, this proposal contains a great deal for climate activists to appreciate and support. If enacted, it will have enormous consequences for the world’s largest economy.
However, that is a might big “if.” Expending $2 trillion dollars on a climate mitigation and adaption program in the four years immediately following an administration that increased the federal deficit by a factor of three to more than $3 trillion constitutes a very heavy political lift.
These proposals will depend on the successful adoption and implementation of a wide range of executive orders, federal regulations, federal agency policies and practices, and congressional legislation. Executive orders have serious limitations, and regulations can be challenging to reverse. Passing any climate legislation in a divided congress is going to be an uphill battle even for a president with a history of reaching across the aisle. However, getting federal agencies to fall in line with Biden appointees in charge should be more straightforward, and that may mean easier going for states that want to move on climate-related projects like Vineyard Wind.
How is this ambitious program going to be funded in the context of a nation still living through an economically crippling pandemic, having millions of citizens who don’t view the climate as a pressing concern, and governed by a polarized set of politicians – especially in the U.S. Senate, where powerful men and women spent the last four years accepting the extensive rollback of environmental rules and approved of and expressed no alarm at the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord?
The Biden plan states that some costs “will be paid for by reversing the excesses of the Trump tax cuts for corporations, reducing incentives for tax havens, evasion, and outsourcing, ensuring corporations pay their fair share, closing other loopholes in our tax code that reward wealth not work, and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.” Making all this happen will not be easy.
George Harrison once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” For the Biden administration, the problem is not that they don’t knowwhere they want to go in the next four years, but rather figuring out how to get to all the destinations enumerated in the roadmaps that have come out of the campaign and are featured in the Democratic Party platform.
The appointment of John Kerry as climate envoy, reporting directly to Biden, means we will have an experienced director of traffic with a passion for combating climate change in charge of setting international climate policy. He is the highest-level U.S. official ever to have a portfolio dedicated exclusively to climate issues. Gina McCarthy’s appointment to be the White House’s climate coordinator of domestic climate change policy is another powerful statement regarding the incoming administration’s intention to address the climate crisis. She is also, like John Kerry, a Massachusetts elder climate activist of great standing.
With strong climate leaders like Kerry and McCarthy, with growing popular support for addressing climate change, with a presidential administration on our side, and with a detailed, visionary roadmap to follow, we may just be on our way to making some real progress in tackling the existential threat of our time.