Biden set to offer newly ambitious climate goals

Source: By Matt Viser and Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at a recent campaign event in Delaware.
Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at a recent campaign event in Delaware. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Joe Biden’s campaign announced a proposal Tuesday to transform the nation’s energy industry, pledging to eliminate carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 and spend $2 trillion to turbocharge the clean energy economy.

The plan would dramatically reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, and the 15-year timeline for a 100 percent clean electricity standard is far more ambitious than anything Biden has previously proposed.

It is the latest sign of Biden’s attempt to reflect the liberal energy in his party, as well as a response to calls for more sweeping plans to lift an economy that is expected to feel the impact of the coronavirus pandemic for years.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee proposes upgrading 4 million buildings and weatherizing 2 million homes over four years, which his campaign estimates would create 1 million jobs. Homeowners would be given cash rebates to upgrade home appliances and install more efficient windows. Car owners would receive rebates to swap their old, less efficient cars for newer ones that release fewer pollutants.

Many of Biden’s proposals, which he plans to outline in a speech Tuesday afternoon in Wilmington, Del., build on the recommendations of a task force made up jointly of allies of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Those recommendations include plans to dramatically expand solar and wind energy, including the installation of 500 million solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines.

Biden’s plan is likely to trigger a vigorous debate with President Trump, who has a much different approach to the country’s energy sector and climate policy.

Trump, a strong backer of fossil fuels, has sought to roll back Obama administration policies aimed at decreasing carbon dioxide emissions and setting new standards for household items such as lightbulbs. He has also downplayed the science behind climate change, and in 2017 he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate pact.

Trump’s embrace of the coal industry was one of his signature issues in 2016, part of his portrait of Hillary Clinton as disdainful of America’s industrial workers. It’s not clear if Trump can level similar attacks against Biden, or if the political landscape has shifted to make that difficult.

In 2016, for example, Republicans seized on Clinton’s comment that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” though it was clear Clinton was suggesting this would happen because of market forces, not as part of her plan.

Trump, meanwhile, pledged to revive the ailing coal industry, telling miners in West Virginia that “we are going to get those mines open” if he was elected. But the coal industry has continued to struggle under Trump, largely because of competition from natural gas and renewable energy.

“Joe Biden pretends to be an advocate for union jobs,” Trump’s campaign wrote after details of Biden’s plan were released. “But his so-called ‘Build Back Better’ plan and radical proposal to spend $2 trillion in four years on Green New Deal policies make it clear that union jobs related to oil, natural gas, fracking and energy infrastructure will be on the chopping block in Joe Biden’s America.”

Biden, in pledging Tuesday to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, is taking a more direct approach than his then-boss, President Barack Obama, took a decade ago during his own efforts to rein in emissions from the power sector.

During his first year in office, Obama worked with congressional Democrats on a cap-and-trade system, in which companies buy and sell credits permitting them to release carbon into the atmosphere.

But the measure proved politically toxic. It passed the House but was never given a vote in the Senate.

Instead, Biden wants to directly require electric utilities to get more of their power from cleaner sources and to improve the energy efficiency of their systems or face penalties.

That policy has proven to be politically viable at the state level. A majority of states — including conservative ones such as Montana, Iowa and Texas — have imposed their own renewable energy requirements on local utilities. But no standard exists at the federal level.

The ratcheted-up targets came after Biden faced pressure from young left-leaning activists and major environmental groups to do more to address what they see as a generational crisis.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, praised the Biden campaign’s announcement for going “further than the strong plan he put out last summer,” saying public polling shows voters have an appetite for action. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the federal government should act more aggressively against climate change, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center.

The big-spending LCV, which pumped more than $80 million into the 2018 election, endorsed Biden in April only after he promised to improve his climate plan.

In outlining the proposal Tuesday morning, Biden said it was aimed at twin goals of rebuilding the economy and fighting climate change. Much of the spending, they said, would go toward repairing bridges and roads and improving public transportation systems.

They claimed that their proposal was doing what Trump has not, in what became a running joke as the White House week after week said the president would focus on repairing the country’s infrastructure, only to digress into other subjects.

“This is an actual infrastructure week,” one adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the formal release of the plan this afternoon.

Biden’s proposal says all American-built buses should emit zero greenhouse gases by 2030, and it would also aim to convert the country’s 500,000 school buses, including those running on diesel fuel, to zero emissions. As Biden has promised previously, he would also aim to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations.

To tackle climate-warming pollution from the transportation sector, the nation’s biggest greenhouse gas source, Biden is endorsing a bill from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would pay people to trade in gas-guzzling cars for electric and other low-emissions vehicles — essentially a “cash for clunkers” program on steroids.

Biden’s campaign declined to describe exactly how he would pay for the new spending. Some of it, advisers said, would be through stimulus funding, which could add to the ballooning federal deficit. It could also be offset by rescinding the tax cuts pushed by Trump and approved by a Republican-controlled Congress in 2017.

The campaign intends to more fully describe how its plans would be funded in the coming weeks, after Biden outlines more of his spending plans, aides said.

The climate proposal does not go into detail about what would happen to areas of the country that are heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry, although one part of Biden’s plan aims to create 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock and uranium mines.

Biden is also calling for the creation of a “climate conservation corps,” an idea that was promoted during the Democratic primary by Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.)and modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

Biden has spoken with Inslee, who ran against Biden in the Democratic primary with a campaign focused sharply on climate change, and former Inslee advisers have been working with Biden’s campaign to craft his energy policy.

“This is the single most comprehensive and ambitious climate plan ever advanced by a major presidential nominee,” said Sam Ricketts, who co-authored Inslee’s climate plan and co-founded Evergreen Action, a group pushing to implement the Inslee plan.

Biden is also calling for several environmental justice provisions, including a proposal that some 40 percent of the money he wants to spend on clean energy spending would go to historically disadvantaged communities.

Biden held a fundraiser Monday with about 140 executives where he spoke about his focus on clean energy.

“I don’t have to be Pollyannaish about this: Donald Trump has ignored the warning, refused to prepare,” he said of the climate crisis.

The former vice president also said he would take swift action and set a more urgent timeline than his earlier proposal, which would have sought to eliminate carbon emissions from power plants by 2050.

That 2050 deadline, he said, “is a million years from now [for] most people. My plan is focused on taking action — now. God willing I win and even if I serve eight years, I want to make sure we put down such a marker that it’s impossible for the next president to turn it around.”

The first question at the fundraiser was from Steve Lockard of TPI Composites, who said he is a Republican supporting Biden because of the Trump administration’s lack of action on climate change. He asked how Biden would make climate a priority, given all the other crises the country is facing.

“The irony of all ironies is it makes it all easier in a bizarre way,” Biden said, by paving the way for social change and creating the need for an economic jolt.

“We’re facing a historic set of crises — a pandemic, an economic crisis and systemic racism,” Biden said, adding of the climate crisis, “the most sweeping crisis of all touches each one.”

Climate change, Biden said, “is the existential threat to humanity, and it is real. It is real. And it is urgent, and the public is becoming aware of it. And it may be the very answer to get us out of this economic situation we’re in.”

He said that he would issue executive orders on his first day in office to rescind those that Trump issued to block the Obama administration’s efforts to cut back on emissions.