Biden's Climate Plan Embraces Green New Deal, Goes Beyond Obama-Era Ambition

The presidential candidate's plan aims for net zero emissions by 2050, clean energy investments and efforts at a just transition for fossil fuel-heavy communities.

Joe Biden, campaigning here in New Hampshire in May, released a climate change plan. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Joe Biden, campaigning here in New Hampshire in May, released a climate change plan that says "the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge." Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Releasing his campaign's first official platform on climate change on Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden moved well beyond the outdated ambitions of his days in the Obama administration.

Like a racing cyclist advancing from the pack as a sprint approaches, Biden has inserted himself strategically among the many jostlers up front.

The core pledge of his new policy is for the United States to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by the year 2050—in line with what mainstream scientists currently say must be the global target. In embracing it, he proclaimed his support for the central principles, if not all the thorny particulars, of the Green New Deal.

"The United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge," Biden's 22-page climate policy paper says.

In its broad goals and specific details, it goes farther than anything the Obama administration pledged in its closing days, right after the 2016 election, when it reassured climate treaty negotiators it would aim for 80 percent cuts by 2050. It's also more far-reaching than Obama's pledge in the middle of his presidency, when the administration embraced short-term emission reductions under the Paris climate agreement that were comparatively easy to achieve.

Biden's new stance appeared designed to assuage critics who feared, based on early trial balloons, that he planned to stick to the middle of the road on climate policy.

Biden's challenge has been three-fold: to inherit the legacy of Obama without playing a figure from the past; to satisfy a highly active and insistent base of primary voters, especially a fickle youth movement, without losing ground to his closest runner-up, Bernie Sanders; and to maintain momentum in Rust Belt swing states from Pennsylvania to Michigan, where Donald Trump's fossil-fuel-friendly campaign found success over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, called it a "strong plan" with "ambitious goals" that builds on Biden's "longtime commitment to a clean energy economy."

Sunrise Movement Offers Some Praise

The Sunrise Movement, the youth-led activist group that has championed the Green New Deal and has warned that a return to Obama-era goals would be "completely out of touch with the reality young people are seeing," quickly took credit for pushing Biden to set his sights higher.

"The pressure worked," said Sunrise Executive Director Varshini Prakash. "We forced [Biden's advisers] to backtrack, and today, he put out a comprehensive climate plan that cites the Green New Deal and names climate change as the greatest challenge facing America and the world."

Prakash argued the Biden announcement marked a turning point in climate politics. "This plan makes it clear: climate change is going to be a defining issue in the 2020 election," she said.

Still, Sunrise and some others stopped short of giving full-throated support to Biden's climate platform. On Twitter, Sunrise said that Biden needed to do more to show how he would move the nation off of fossil fuels and ensure a just transition to a clean energy economy. 

What's in the Biden Plan?

Biden's program stops short of embracing the most politically challenging policy elements that the most ardent supporters of the Green New Deal would like to see linked to a climate plan, like universal jobs and health care.

Still, Biden said he "believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face," his campaign's online summary of the plan said. "Our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected."

Biden promised investment in "coal and power plant communities and other communities impacted by the climate transformation" as part of his plan. "This is support they've earned for fueling our country's industrial revolution and decades of economic growth," the plan said. "We're not going to leave any workers or communities behind."

Also, for the first time, Biden said he would not take campaign contributions from oil, gas or coal companies or their executives. That appears to put him in line with the majority of Democratic presidential candidates, who have signed a No Fossil Fuel Funding pledge.

How Does It Compare to Others?

Biden's platform is not that far from that of Jay Inslee, for example, the Washington governor who says climate change is Issue No. 1, but who's far behind Biden in early polls.

For both candidates, the goal is a clean energy economy, achieved in part through massive infrastructure spending to hasten the transition and build greater resilience for communities suffering climate impacts.

Biden foresees $1.7 trillion in spending over the next 10 years, and $3.3 trillion in investments by the private sector and state and local governments. That's about on par with the size of the $5 trillion climate plan of former U.S. Rep Beto O'Rourke of Texas, who was the first of the Democratic presidential contenders with a detailed climate plan. Both Biden's and O'Rourke's plans are about half the size of Inslee's proposed $3 trillion in federal spending and $6 trillion in private spending over the next decade.

Neither candidate mentions carbon taxes as a means to fund this effort or unleash market incentives for clean energy, although Biden calls for "an enforcement mechanism ... based on the principles that polluters must bear the full cost of the carbon pollution they are emitting." He said it would include "clear, legally-binding emissions reductions," implying a carbon cap approach.

Biden said he would pay for his plan by "reversing the excesses of the Trump tax cuts for corporations" and ending fossil fuel industry subsidies.

Biden pledged to create a new agency—ARPA-C, or "Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate"—with a broader focus on greenhouse gas reduction technology than the technology incubator agency created at the start of the Obama administration, ARPA-E. For example, ARPA-C would include in its mission grants to jump-start early-stage technology aimed at reducing emissions in the food and agriculture sector—an area that experts believe has great potential to help address the climate crisis but is outside the purview of ARPA-E. Biden's not the only Democratic presidential candidate thinking along these lines—Inslee has proposed an ARPA-Ag agency, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has an idea for an ARPA-TERRA.

Warren Also Launches a Climate Plan

Not to be outdone, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who had already released extensive policy statements on climate, threw another $2 trillion into the mix with a posting on Medium that described a 10-year program of investment in green research, manufacturing and exporting.

She wrote that it would create jobs and help "achieve the ambitious targets of the Green New Deal."

Her plan would include $400 billion in funding over the next 10 years for green research and development, which she called a tenfold increase over the rate of spending during the past decade. It would spend $1.5 trillion for American-made clean energy products "for federal, state and local use, and for export." She compared this to the "bloated" military procurement budget projected for the coming decade. This spending, a 30 percent increase over total federal procurement contracts, would go for everything from light bulbs to electric vehicles.

She also called for $100 billion a year in foreign assistance to purchase emissions-free American energy technology.

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