The four biggest differences between the Biden and Sanders climate plans

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, March 8, 2020


Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). (Mark Felix and Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Super Tuesday whittled down the Democratic race for the White House to two viable candidates — and two different visions for what to do about climate change. 

Both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders agree Earth’s steadily rising temperatures are an “existential threat.” Both say President Trump made a grave mistake when he promised to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord. And both offer more ambitious proposals for tackling climate change than any U.S. president ever has.

But beyond that, the former vice president and the independent senator from Vermont have diverging proposals about how exactly — and how quickly — to try to cut the country’s contributions to global warming. Here are the biggest differences on the issues, as voters head to the polls in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington next Tuesday:

1. Gas: The declining cost and growing availability of gas because of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has helped lead to the closure of hundreds of power plants that burn coal — the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. But gas makes its own contribution to climate change, and scientists are still trying to puzzle out just how big it is.

  • Biden wants to end new drilling on public lands and impose “aggressive” limits on the release of methane, a potent heat-trapping pollutant, from existing wells. But he stops short of calling for an immediate end to gas production, and wants to spend money to research ways of capturing and using carbon dioxide from gas-fired power plants.
  • Sanders wants to undercut the entire gas industry with nationwide bans on both fracking and exporting gas to other countries. He also calls capturing carbon from the exhaust of fossil fuel plants a “false solution” to climate change.

2. Nukes: Nuclear energy is the nation’s biggest source of power that emits no carbon dioxide. But it also has proved to be a costly form of generation that leaves behind tons of radioactive waste — and no one seems to know where to safely store it.

  • Biden is unclear about what he wants to do. He says he will support research into nuclear waste disposal systems, but doesn’t say if he wants to build more nuclear plants.
  • Sanders is a longtime opponent of nuclear power. He pledged to enact a moratorium on all license renewals for existing nuclear power plants over concerns about nuclear waste and another Fukushima-like disaster.

3. Deadline to cut emissions: A United Nations panel of hundreds of climate scientists said in a 2018 report that the world will fail to keep global warming to moderate levels unless “unprecedented” action is taken worldwide over the next decade to drastically reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

  • Biden aims to get the U.S. economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by at least 2050 by asking Congress to pass sweeping legislation giving the president power to enforce emissions reductions and to invest in clean energy research.
  • Sanders wants to have the power and transportation sectors running completely on renewable energy by at least 2030, and to decarbonize the rest of the economy by the middle of this century. The senator also wants the federal government to have a more active role in generating that wind, solar and geothermal power.

4. Cost of their plans: None of the above would be cheap, and both candidates’ plans reflect that. But the cost of letting the climate continue to warm the Earth can already be seen in the billions of dollars in damages from more intense hurricanes and fiercer wildfires.

  • Biden’s price tag: $1.7 trillion over 10 years.
  • Sanders’s price tag: $16.3 trillion over that same period, by far the biggest price tag of any of the Democratic climate plans.