Biden’s Climate Pledge Is a Promise He Cannot Keep

Howie Hawkins

May 4, 2021

President Biden’s Earth Day pledge to cut carbon emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030 is a promise he cannot keep. The White House Fact Sheet released with Biden’s pledge added nothing to the climate actions in his American Jobs Plan announced on March 31. The 12,000-word White House Fact Sheet on the American Jobs Plan hardly mentions the climate. The plan is presented as a jobs through infrastructure program with only a fraction of it impacting carbon emissions.

The climate emergency demands a radical and rapid decarbonization of the U.S. economy with numerical goals and timetables to transform all productive sectors, not only power production (27% of carbon emissions), but also transportation (28%), manufacturing (22%), buildings (12%), and agriculture (10%). It also requires that the U.S. pay its “climate debt” as the world’s largest historical carbon emitter and destroyer of carbon-storing forests, wetlands, and soils. Paying that climate debt would not only be reparations to the Global South for deforestation and fossil fuel emissions by the rich capitalist countries, but also an investment in the habitability of the planet for everyone. This emergency transformation can only be met by an ecosocialist approach emphasizing democratic public enterprise and planning.

Instead, Biden’s plan features corporate welfare: subsidies and tax incentives for clean energy that will take uncertain effect at a leisurely pace in the markets. It does nothing to stop more oil and gas fracking and pipelines for more gas-fired power plants, or to shut down coal-fired power plants. Without out directly saying so, it is a plan to burn fossil fuels for decades to come.

The scale of spending falls pathetically short of what is needed to decarbonize the economy. An effective plan would not only reach zero emissions on a fast timeline. It would also move quickly toward negative emissions. We have to draw carbon out of the atmosphere because we are already well past carbon levels that are triggering dangerous climate change.

Biden’s stated goal of a 50% cut in emissions does not actually cut current emissions in half. His proposed 50% cut is from a baseline of 2005 when emissions were at their peak, not what they are today. Emissions were 6 GtC (gigatons of carbon dioxide) in 2005. Due to a leveling of electric power demand, a trend away from coal to wind, solar, and gas for electric power, and more energy-efficient vehicles, U.S. emissions were down 13% from 2005 by 2019 to 5.1 GtC and, due to the covid contraction, down 21% in 2020 to 4.6 GtC, although emissions are now soaring back up as the economy re-opens. Biden’s goal of 50% below 2005 is 3 GtC per year in emissions instead of 2.5 GtC if 2019 were the baseline, or 2.3 GtC if 2020 were the baseline.

Biden provided no explanation for how the U.S. will get to the precisely stated range of “50% to 52%.” 52% seems to be an arbitrary number pulled out of the air so he can say he is aiming for more than 50%. Greta Thunberg’s video prebuttal to the targets that were to be announced by Biden and the other 40 world leaders at his Earth Day Climate Summit saw right through the staged spectacle. “We can keep cheating in order to pretend that these targets are in line with what is needed, but while we can fool others, and even ourselves, we cannot fool nature and physics… Let’s call out their bullshit.”

Climate Emergency

It’s too late for gradualism. We must at least aim for the “initial target” of 350 ppm (350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) that was proposed 13 years ago by climate scientists James Hansen and colleagues in a 2008 study. Even in that research report Hansen et al. concluded that 300-325 ppm “may be needed to restore sea ice to its area of 25 years ago.” Other prominent climate scientists at the time, such as Hans Joachim Schellnbuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, were saying that only a return to pre-industrial level of CO2 of 280 ppm would guarantee a safe climate. The Earth sailed past that 350 ppm at the end of 1988. At the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, carbon dioxide averaged 414 ppm in 2020, averaged 418 ppm in March of this year, and set a record of 421 ppm on April 3.

The last time atmospheric carbon was this high was in the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period 3.6 million years ago when the temperature was 4°C (7°F) hotter and sea levels were 24 meters (78 feet) higher than today. At last year’s 2.6 ppm annual rate of carbon dioxide rise, the planet will hit 500 ppm around 2050. The last time carbon dioxide levels were at 500 ppm was in the Middle Miocene 16 million years ago when temperatures were as much as 8°C (14°F) higher and sea levels were 40 meters (130 feet) higher. These climate changes are locked into the climate system by the contemporary carbon levels unless the world not only stops emissions, but soon gets to negative emissions by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and into the biosphere by reforestation and by rebuilding carbon-rich living soils with regenerative agriculture.

Today’s rapid climate change entails more than the heat waves, extreme weather, and flooded cities in the headlines. Between now and 2050, we face mass extinctions, collapsing land and ocean ecosystems, agricultural crises and food shortages, economic contraction and increasing poverty, hundreds of millions of climate refugees, and escalating social conflicts and resource wars.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council takes these projections seriously in its March 2021 “Global Trends 2040” report. In one of its scenarios, in the early 2030s “a global food catastrophe caused by climate events and environmental degradation” prompts “bottom-up, revolutionary change” where Green parties sweep European elections in 2034 and 2036, and later in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. The Western Greens are joined by a China that is suffering famine and social unrest due to depleted fisheries and depressed harvests around the globe. They lead a redistributive restructuring of the global economy to combat global warming, environmental degradation, and poverty. The petrostates in Russia and the Persian Gulf resist, but face their own disruptive domestic political movements. We shouldn’t have to wait for mass starvation a decade from now to instigate an emergency response to climate change.

It may still be possible, according to one aggressive and optimistic scenario proposed by James Hansen, to avert climate calamity. Hansen’s scenario is based on a rapid phase-out of emissions coupled to a radical transformation of agriculture and forestry in order to drawdown atmospheric carbon to below 350 ppm by the end of the century. This drawdown scenario is based on maximizing the global potential for soil and forest restoration to absorb atmospheric carbon. The hope in this scenario is that the 350 ppm safety zone will be restored in time to avert tipping points that initiate self-reinforcing climate processes that could make catastrophic global warming irreversible.

We are nowhere near the kind of emergency response to the climate crisis that Hansen proposed. The 2018 special report on global warming of 1.5°C by the International Panel on Climate Change projected that to have a 67% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, the remaining global carbon budget was 420 GtC (gigatons of carbon dioxide). Today the carbon budget is down to 280 GtC. If carbon emissions rate continue at their recent rate of 42 GtC per year, we will blow through the 1.5°C budget by the end of 2027.

A 67% chance is like pulling the trigger in Russian roulette with two bullets in a six-chamber revolver. Those are not the odds we would choose, but it is the best chance that climate scientists tell us we have if we immediately begin an emergency transformation of our energy system. Unfortunately, Biden’s climate plan is not an emergency plan.

Democrats Negotiate With Themselves

Much of the Biden plan’s investment budget is for needed improvements to physical infrastructure that do not directly affect carbon emissions, such as roads, bridges, and water systems. Some of the investments can reduce emissions if they are built for energy efficiency and clean power, such as the investments in housing, schools, hospitals, and the broadband needed for a renewables- and efficiency-friendly smart grid. The White House Fact Sheet also outlines many social policies, including directing 40% of infrastructure funds to disadvantaged communities, $5 billion in grants to end exclusionary zoning, promoting union jobs and unions themselves by adopting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), and $400 billion for much-needed services for disabled people and seniors.

In addition to the American Jobs Plan, Biden is releasing a companion American Families Plan for social infrastructure in conjunction with his April 28 address to a joint session of Congress that will reportedly commit another $1.8 trillion to child-care and pre-K, tuition-free community college, paid leave, child tax credits, and increased Obamacare subsidies to purchase private health insurance. All of these social policies move in a progressive direction, although that is debatable for the Obamacare subsidies instead of Medicare for All.

The final details of Biden’s plans will be pounded out over the next few months. Democratic leaders expect to have Congress vote on the plan in the summer. The Democrats won’t be able to blame the Republicans for any shortcomings. They only have to negotiate with themselves because the bill will be going through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. To what extent all these physical and social infrastructure proposals survive remains to be seen as corporations lobby and members of Congress horse trade, which will be enhanced with the return of earmarks.

Just ahead of Biden’s Earth Day Climate Summit, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) reintroduced their nonbinding resolution for a Green New Deal from the last session of Congress as the progressive framework for negotiating the climate package. This nonbinding resolution is a watered-down version of the Green New Deal that the Green Party had made its signature issue in the 2010s. Unlike the Green Party’s Green New Deal, it does not ban fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure, phase out nuclear power, or make deep cuts to the military in order to redirect money and brainpower to the clean energy transformation. Instead of the Green Party’s target of zero emissions by 2030, it extends the deadline for “net zero” emissions to 2050. The climate emergency demands stronger measures than even the progressive Democrats are proposing.

I will focus in what follows on the climate impact of Biden’s American Jobs Plan. After a critique of the policy framework of the Biden plan, I will show sector by productive sector how the Biden plan fails to build clean energy and cut emissions enough to matter much for the climate.

Small Scale

At $2.3 trillion over 8 years, the Biden plan’s spending is a small fraction of what the climate movement and Green New Dealers have been projecting as needed to address the climate emergency. After subtracting the $400 billion for home and community-based care for the elderly and disabled, only about $1.9 trillion will be spent on physical infrastructure. At best only a third of that spending would contribute to carbon emission reductions. At $2.3 trillion over 8 years, Biden’s current plan is already down 40% from the 4-year, $2 trillion climate commitment that he made during his campaign last July. With only a third of the $2.3 trillion going to carbon reduction measures over 8 years, the actual carbon reductions budget comes to a drop-in-the-bucket $100 billion a year.

Even without considering the costs of building a new clean energy infrastructure, $1.9 trillion is not even enough to cover the 10-year funding gap of $2.6 trillion identified by the American Society of Civil Engineers to maintain and upgrade from C- to B quality the country’s existing infrastructure. In every sector covered in the White House Fact Sheet, the investments proposed are insufficient to meet the need. For example, the Biden plan budgets $16 billion to “capping hundreds of thousands of orphan oil and gas wells and abandoned mines” that leak greenhouse gases, especially methane which is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet over the first 20 years. Actually, there are estimated to be about 5 million of uncapped oil and gas wells and coal mines. The cost of plugging all of them is around $300 billion.

By comparison, the THRIVE (Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy) Agenda pushed by Green New Deal Network of 15 national progressive organizations calls for $10 trillion over 10 years. Bernie Sanders proposed $16.3 trillion over 10 years in his campaign’s Green New Deal. The Ecosocialist Green New Deal budget that I campaigned for running for President as the Green Party candidate was $41.7 trillion over 10 years. Of that, $27.5 trillion was for a Green Economy Reconstruction Program to rebuild all productive systems in the U.S. economy for zero-to-negative emissions and 100% clean energy by 2030. $14.2 trillion was for an Economic Bill of Rights, including a job guarantee, a guaranteed income above poverty, affordable housing for all, Medicare for All, lifelong tuition-free public education, and a secure retirement for all by doubling Social Security benefits.

Corporate Oligarchs

Besides the small scale of investment in Biden’s plan, it relies on billionaire oligarchs and their for-profit corporations to make most of the decisions about where and what to build for a clean energy economy. Thus Bill Gates was given a platform at the Earth Day Climate Summit to promote “the power of markets” and government support for “breakthrough technologies” in which he happens to be invested. His TerraPower company is in the “advanced” nuclear business. He is backing carbon capture companies through his Breakthrough Energy venture capital fund, whose partners are a global who’s who of billionaires, including African Rainbow Mineral’s Patrice Motsepe, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Carlyle Group’s David Rubenstein, Linked-In’s Reid Hoffman, Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani, Saudi Arabia Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Virgin Airlines’s Richard Branson, and Michael Bloomberg, who also spoke at the Biden’s climate summit.

The Biden Plan relies on government contracts, grants, and tax incentives with the same energy, utility, and manufacturing corporations that built and rely upon the fossil-fueled energy system we have. Those companies have every incentive to wear out their existing physical capital before investing in new plant and equipment. Utilities want to use their centralized fossil and nuclear fueled power plants and the corresponding the servo-mechanical grid before they build distributed solar and wind power sources and the digital smart grid those energy sources need. Steel companies want to use their coke ovens as long as they can before shifting to electric arc furnaces. Cement factories want to make carbon-emitting Portland cement as long as they can before switching to new zero or negative carbon cements.

The THRIVE Agenda takes the same pro-corporate approach as Biden’s plan. It just scales it up. In the economic analysis the THRIVE Agenda relies upon, “We assume that this overall level of public investments will be matched equally by the same level of investment undertaken by private sector sources.” Like the Biden plan, THRIVE relies mostly on "market-shaping rules" and business incentives like government contracts, tax credits, and loan guarantees. Spending through the public sector is limited to government buildings, vehicle fleets, and infrastructure.

This approach leaves investment and technology decisions to the corporate oligarchs. It relies on the uncertain ad hoc coordination of markets to link green machinery production with clean manufacturing and with renewable energy on a smart grid. It does not plan mass transit in concert with affordable housing construction to foster energy- and resource-efficient walkable communities. Implementing the policies and economic incentives to steer the market is convoluted. It requires the federal government to encourage state utility regulators to adopt its policies, which is politically dicey when the utility and energy corporations have so much influence on the state regulatory agencies.

With corporations preferring to wear out their existing physical plant and equipment before building green alternatives, these corporate-dependent plans are a set-up for a quagmire as the corporations battle legislators and regulators to maximize their profits and, above all for corporate leaders who are already rich, to maximize their power to make production decisions and dominate public policy-making.

Transforming the energy system through the public sector is simpler, faster, and direct. With public planning, the desired result is built in. Left to the private sector, the results depend on corporate decisions.

The planning and construction of an interstate smart grid to coordinate the distributed and intermittent nature of wind and solar power in order to provide reliable power nationwide is a much simpler proposition than running the gauntlet of 50 state regulatory agencies to get the right policies and subsidies in place to steer markets nationwide. The clean energy transformation is a problem of political economy, not market economics. We need the economic democracy of ecosocialism to have the power to carry the program through.

Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal was more focused on public ownership, planning, and production than the Biden and THRIVE plans. It called for public production and distribution of renewable energy by expanding upon the existing federal Power Marketing Administrations (such as the Tennessee Valley Authority) inherited from the first New Deal and supporting the conversion of investor-owned utilities to public power utilities. The public sector would build out mass transit, high-speed passenger rail, and freight rail. It provided for publicly-owned broadband infrastructure, repair and clean energy upgrades for public housing, and community-owned farmland to enable farmers to stay on farms when land prices rise. But it left the key sector of manufacturing out of its public sector inititiatives.

Our Ecosocialist Green New Deal features public enterprise, employment, and planning to coordinate the conversion of all productive sectors — power, transportation, manufacturing, buildings, and agriculture — to clean energy. We prioritize social ownership and planning in the manufacturing sector in order to build green production machinery for all productive sectors that is powered by clean energy, ends greenhouse gas emissions, and is designed for zero-waste re-use and recycling. It would build green factories that are publicly-owned and leased to worker cooperatives.

Our Ecosocialist Green New Deal draws on what the U.S. did during the World War II emergency when the federal government took over, owned, and planned production for about a quarter of the nation’s manufacturing capacity in order to turn industry on a dime into the Arsenal of Democracy to arm the Allies to defeat fascist Axis powers. We need to do nothing less through the public sector now to defeat climate change.

The “Net Zero” Trick

The plan has no intention of shutting down fossil fuel burning. By failing to halt fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure, the Biden plan locks us into burning fossil fuels for decades. It doesn’t even call for the rapid phase-out of coal-fired plants, only a third of which are scheduled to be retired by 2035 when Biden’s plan projects “net zero” emissions from the power sector. Biden’s plan is a recommitment to the “all-of-the-above” energy policy of the Obama administration. That approach was underscored the week after the American Jobs Plan was released when Biden refused to shut down the Dakota Access oil pipeline that is operating without a permit while it undergoes a court-ordered environmental review.

The trick here is the slippery term “net zero,” which is used interchangeably with the equally misleading “carbon neutral.” The Biden plan impractically assumes the 2035 “net zero” goal will be met by the deployment of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which is being pushed by Big Oil and Gas as a new profit center. That won’t happen without massive government subsidies. The technology is unprofitable because carbon dioxide is nearly worthless and the massive infrastructure required to pipe it to where underground storage is geologically possible is a huge cost with no revenues. Regardless of the economics, CCS should not be deployed because of its huge environmental risks of acidifying aquifers and groundwater, asphyxiating people in close proximity to above ground leaks, and warming the planet with leaks. Moreover, as Mark Jacobson, an environmental engineer and renewable energy advocate at Stanford, found in a 2019 study of one CCS project, net carbon emissions increased because of the fossil fuels required to power it.

Pollution Prevention

The environmental scientist Barry Commoner warned us in 1990 in Making Peace with the Planet of the folly of pollution control approaches like CCS. He showed that prevention, not control, is the only way to end pollution. In reviewing the first two decades of modern federal environmental policy addressing water, air, chemical, and radioactive pollution, Commoner noted that pollution prevention — banning DDT, PCBs, lead in gasoline, and nuclear bomb tests — had worked. Pollution control had not worked. For example, catalytic converters and power plant scrubbers had not stopped air pollution and acid rain.

Most modern pollutants are products of the post World War II petrochemical industry that substituted synthetic for biological chemicals. Commoner explained that natural enzymes had co-evolved with biological materials that made them biodegradable and recyclable into the organic biochemistry of life. Synthetic chemicals persist and accumulate to disrupt ecosystems and the health of organisms. Detergents replaced soaps. Plastics replaced paper. Nylon replaced cotton. Pesticides replaced crop rotation, inter-cropping, and natural pest predators. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers replaced manure and nitrogen-fixing crops.

We have to stop pollution at the point of production by converting to ecological production technologies that don’t produce pollutants. Commoner contended that this conversion required an economy governed by public democracy instead of private profit-seeking.

When it came to averting what he called the “global warming catastrophe,” Commoner did not propose pollution control in the form of carbon capture and storage by profit-seeking corporations. He proposed a public energy system to completely replace fossil fuels with the efficient use of clean renewables across the world. The program would also replace toxic pollution with ecologically sound production systems that rely on natural biological materials instead of synthetic petrochemicals. In today’s dollars, Commoner’s international program would have cost $25 trillion over 25 years. Had we taken his advice then, we could have reached a pollution-free economy powered by clean renewable sources in 2015 and averted the climate and environmental emergency we are now in.

Fiscal Conservatism

An effective climate plan would first determine what labor, materials, and new production systems are needed to decarbonize the economy and then figure out to pay for it. Biden’s plan does it backwards. It determines what it can spend based on what it can raise in the plan’s tax proposals that feature higher corporate tax rates. Instead of this pay-as-you-go fiscal conservatism, the federal government should spend the money now to address the climate emergency and pay for it over time from taxes and, in an ecosocialist approach, from the sale of publicly produced energy, transportation, housing, and green machinery for pollution-free manufacturing and agriculture. The climate emergency won’t wait on a conservative pay-go fiscal policy.

Progressive economists calling for infrastructure investment on the scale of the THRIVE Agenda’s 10-year $10 trillion program have made the case that the economy has ample fiscal space to absorb that stimulus without triggering inflation in an economy operating at full capacity. However, we must acknowledge that the massive investments needed to meet the climate challenge have inflationary potential, particularly on the scale of the $41.7 trillion 10-year spending in our Ecosocialist Green New Deal. Building up the economy to fully utilize its labor and plant capacity will inevitably produce supply bottlenecks that bid up prices for labor and materials. Economist Stephanie Kelton recently addressed this inflation concern about the large-scale physical and social infrastructure spending that she supports. She suggested a variety of industrial, trade, immigration, heath care, and tax policies that could stabilize prices by increasing supply and curtailing demand. If more aggressive measures become necessary to contain inflation, the U.S. could employ price controls and rationing as it did during the high deficit spending of World War II. Flexible price controls based on tax disincentives rather than direct administrative controls are an option proposed by three radical economists in 1983 in Beyond the Wasteland: A Democratic Alternative to Economic Decline (pp. 295-302). What we cannot afford to do is let fear of inflation prevent us from making the energy infrastructure investments we to make now for climate safety.

Jobs

The incumbent energy industries have long claimed that a transition to clear energy will cost jobs. The opposite is true. All of the proposals for infrastucture and climate spending discussed here are major job creators. While the White House Fact Sheet makes no estimate of the number of jobs the plan would create, Biden said a couple days after its release that the plan would create 19 million jobs, referring to a report by Moody Analytics. That report actually says there will be 19 million more jobs by 2030 due to the expected post-covid economic recovery plus the American Jobs Plan. 2.7 million of those jobs were attributed to the extra spending in the American Jobs Plan. A Georgetown study, arguing that the infrastructure stimulus is necessary for a full post-covid recovery, attributes a major portion of the employment increase — 15 million jobs — to the Biden’s infrastructure plan.

The economic analysis for a $9.5 trillion version of the THRIVE Agenda came to 15.5 million jobs, half of which were assumed to come indirectly from the multiplier effect of the public spending. Sanders’s $16.3 trillion plan projected 20 million jobs. Our $41.7 trillion Ecosocialist Green New Deal budget projected 38 million jobs, including 8.9 million in manufacturing, by making an analysis of jobs created per million dollars invested in each sector of production that must be transformed for zero emissions.

The monthly unemployment analysis by the National Jobs for All Network (NJFAN) for March 2021 found the real jobless number to be 22.4 million (13.4%) compared to the official number of 9.7 million (6.0%). The NJFAN analysis includes part-timers who want full-time work (5.8 million) and discouraged workers (6.9 million) who want jobs but were not looking and not counted at the time of the monthly government survey.

At around 15 million jobs, the Biden and THRIVE Agenda proposals would not provide jobs for all of the 22.4 million currently unemployed. At 20 million jobs, Sanders’ Green New Deal would come close. At 38 million jobs, our Ecosocialist Green New Deal faces a labor shortage to complete program on a fast 10-year timeline.

That labor bottleneck is an argument for liberalizing immigration policy and relieving the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II in order to have the workforce needed to rapidly transform the energy and production systems of the U.S. With the world’s largest carbon footprint, what the U.S. does about it in the next decade is crucial to the future habitability of the planet. The U.S. has the world’s largest cumulative carbon emissions by far (25%, over 400 GtC). The U.S. carbon footprint remains the highest per capita and second highest in total annual carbon emissions after China.

Infrastructure jobs are currently 90% male. Social infrastructure investments create jobs that are filled more by women. Much greater investments in both are needed for full employment for both men and women.

Boston rush hour traffic, November 2019. (Photo: David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe)

Transportation

The biggest investment in Biden’s plan affecting carbon emissions is $621 billion over 8 years in the transportation sector, which accounts for 28% of U.S. carbon emissions. By comparison, our budget for the Ecosocialist Green New Deal would invest $6.8 trillion over 10 years in transportation reconstruction. It would electrify all road vehicles and railroad trains, build convenient mass transit across the country, and upgrade the nation’s conventional transportation infrastructure — roads, bridges, waterways, ports, aviation — to the specifications recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Fully electrifying transportation using clean renewable power sources would zero out carbon emissions and contribute to saving around 200,000 lives a year in the U.S. from premature deaths due to air pollution that kills even when it is below current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards.

The biggest commitment in Biden’s transportation budget is $174 billion for electric vehicles (EV), of which $100 billion would be spent on EV customer rebates and $15 billion in grants to leverage private investment to build 500,000 EV charging stations by 2030. An April 2021 UC Berkeley study found that in a scenario where all vehicles sold are electric for cars by 2030 and for trucks by 2035, 8 million public charging stations and 100 million home chargers must be built. As Melissa Lott, an energy policy expert at Columbia University, told The Guardian, “What Biden has proposed on chargers is a drop in the bucket.”

In January, GM and Massachusetts joined California in committing to eliminate the sale of gas and diesel cars, SUVs, and light trucks by 2035. The U.S. Postal Service’s 10-year plan released in March asks Congress for $8 billion to electrify its 208,000 delivery vehicle fleet by 2035. Viewed from today, the 2035 deadline corresponds to the 15-year turnover rate for most of the 250 million cars, SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks on U.S. roads today. In order for almost all vehicles to be electric by 2050, the year when the Biden plan projects economy-wide “net zero” emissions, the sale of gas and diesel vehicles would have to stop by 2035. Yet Biden has so far resisted setting a date to end the sale of internal combustion vehicles.

Biden’s plan says nothing about replacing the U.S. fleet of 3.6 million heavy duty trucks, 98% of which have diesel engines whose emissions of particulates and other pollutants are especially damaging to health. Replacing diesel with electric power is a public health issue as well as a climate issue. Around half of deaths due to transportation pollution are attributed to diesel exhaust. Trucking accounts for 60% of the ton-miles and 85% of the value of freight even though freight trains use far less fuel. Moving a ton of freight 500 miles per gallon, trains use only 25% of the diesel fuel per ton-mile as over-the-road trucks.

The Biden plan’s $85 billion for public transportation falls far short of the need. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority alone needs $55 billion in capital improvements over the next 5 years.

The plan would invest $80 billion in upgrading railroads, but makes no specific commitments beyond passing references to electrification and to shifting some of the transportation of people and freight from personal vehicles and over-the-road trucking to passenger and freight rails. Electric motors already power almost all locomotives which are diesel-electric. Diesel combustion generates power for their electric motors. Electrifying rail is a matter of building the infrastructure to convey electricity to locomotive motors without burning diesel. But it will cost a lot more than the $80 billion Biden commits to railroads.

One proposal called Solutionary Rail for electrifying the U.S. rail system yields an estimated cost of electrifying the nation’s 160,000 track miles of $400 billion. Using their per mile estimate, it would cost $1.1 trillion to expand an electrified national rail network to the peak of 430,000 track miles that the nation had in the early 1930s. The rail network expansion would enable the shifting most of the long-distance moving of people and freight from roads to rails. Using a higher cost estimate, our Ecosocialist Green New Deal budgets $1 trillion over 10 years to electrify existing rail networks.

The Biden plan also has low ambitions for electrifying the nation’s 995,000 diesel buses. The plan’s Fact Sheet says it will replace 50,000 “diesel transit vehicles” with electric ones, presumably referring to buses. The electrification of the nation’s 480,000 school buses is more ambitious, calling for at least 20% in 8 years, or about 100,000 electric school buses. Combining the school and other buses, at the pace of 150,000 electric buses in 8 years it will take over 50 years to electrify the whole 1 million bus fleet, too late to meet the 2050 “carbon neutrality” goal of the Biden administration.

The Biden plan falls far short in terms of the investments and timelines that are needed to convert to 100% electric road vehicles with sufficient charging stations, to electrified rails, and to convenient mass transit nationwide if the U.S. transportation sector is going to meet Biden’s stated goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Power

Biden’s plan commits a paltry $100 billion to the electric power sector, which accounts for 27% of U.S. carbon emissions. It is hard to see how these investments, mostly market incentives in the form of tax credits, could ever result in “net zero” carbon emissions by 2035, the stated Biden goal for the power sector.

Our Ecosocialist Green New Deal budget figured it would take $5.1 trillion over 10 years to transform the power production system to zero carbon emissions and 100% clean energy by 2030. Our plan relies on public ownership and planning to make a rapid transformation of power production and distribution based on the need, not the profits of investor-owned companies that will delay investments in clean renewables and a smart grid at least until their existing power plants and servo-mechanical grids wear out. Our budget includes buying a controlling interest in the energy companies and utilities in order to plan the rapid deployment of an interstate smart grid to coordinate clean renewable energy sources, energy storage systems, and energy-efficient smart homes, businesses, and government buildings.

The Biden plan’s idea of clean energy includes gas-fired power plants, carbon capture technology, biofuels, waste incinerators, and nuclear power. In addition to tax credits for clean energy generation, the Biden plan calls for a federal Clean Electricity Standard (CES), which will grandfather in these dirty energy sources. The CES policy is the alternative promoted by corporate energy interests to Renewable Portfolio Standards that 30 states, D.C., Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands have adopted. Renewable Portfolio Standards require utilities to provide increasing proportions of energy over time from clean renewables like solar and wind.

A federal Renewable Portfolio Standard enforced by rewards and penalties could be a powerful policy to push power utilities to make a rapid transition to clean renewables. Instead Biden proposes “a Clean Energy Standard (CES) instead of a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would take advantage of renewables as well as existing and new nuclear, carbon capture and storage, waste-to-energy, and other technologies in its effort to eliminate carbon from the power sector,” in the words of the corporate-funded centrist Third Way think tank. Never mind that nuclear, CCS, and burning waste are not carbon free. The CES idea has been kicking around center-right circles in Washington for years. Legislation for a federal CES was introduced by Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in 2010 and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) in 2012, members of Congress not known as climate champions but for their fealty to Big Nukes, Oil, Gas, and Coal.

The White House Fact Sheet states that its CES would “leverage the carbon pollution-free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear.” In touting Biden’s plan, his climate advisor, Gina McCarthy, confirmed that the CES would be “inclusive” of nuclear power and fossil fuels with CCS. We have already addressed here the folly of CCS, but the administration insists on pursuing this fossil fuel industry favorite. McCarthy had met with oil and gas industry executives the week before the plan’s release. Perhaps because these so-called “clean” alternatives to solar and wind are more expensive, the Biden plan also allocates $35 billion to energy technology research and development, including CCS, biofuels, and “advanced nuclear.”

Biofuels are touted as carbon-neutral because they presumably recycle carbon already in the biospheric carbon cycle instead of releasing new carbon that was sequestered underground in fossil fuels. But this view doesn’t account for the carbon released by the degradation of living soils in the monocultural industrial farming required to grow and harvest the biomass crops like corn, switchgrass, and sugarcane. The result of large-scale biofuel production is a net increase in atmospheric carbon. The pesticides required for biomass plantations pollute soil and water ecosystems. Biomass plantations take land away that is needed for food production. Solar panels produce over 100 times as much energy as biofuels per acre and can be placed on non-arable land. While biofuels are not suitable for large-scale production to burn in internal combustion engines and electric power plants, there are smaller scale uses that are compatible with a sustainable energy and production system, such as capturing methane from landfills and from the anaerobic digestion of waste water, food wastes, and other organic waste. Burning that methane for power does emit carbon dioxide, but burning it contributes less to global warming than if more potent methane is allowed to escape into the atmosphere. These small-scale biofuel technologies already exist. They don’t need R&D investments from Biden’s infrastructure plan.

“Advanced nuclear” is catch-all phrase for Small Modular Reactors (SMR) and alternative fuels such as thorium. These technologies are so “advanced” that they have been researched and unsuccessfully developed since the 1940s. SMRs have been economic and technological failures for decades. Fifty years of thorium reactor development also failed. A Union of Concerned Scientists study released in March just prior to the release of Biden’s plan is entitled “‘Advanced’ Isn’t Always Better.” It warns that the so-called advanced nuclear designs are not safer, are not more economical, increase risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and still produce radioactive waste that must be isolated for hundreds of thousands of years.

Nukes are far from carbon free. Nuclear is the third-highest carbon emitter among power sources after coal- and gas-fired power plants. The lifecycle emissions of nuclear is 66 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, compared to wind at 9 grams per kilowatt-hour and solar at 32 grams per kilowatt-hour.

Nuclear costs two to three times more per megawatt-hour than most forms of solar and wind energy today, according to the asset management firm, Lazard, which explains why investors have been choosing renewables over risky nuclear investments for years. Nuclear power has never been able to operate without public subsidies like the Price-Anderson Act, which caps the liabilities of the nuclear industry for accidents because private insurance companies won’t fully insure them.

Given the economic and environmental costs of nuclear power, it is hard to conceive of any reason why the Biden plan promotes nuclear power except the influence of the nuclear industry. Biden was the top recipient of campaign contributions from nuclear reactor provider GE. He was the only presidential candidate to receive donations from employees of the Nuclear Energy Institute.. The Nuclear Energy Institute PAC also made donations to pro-nuclear Democratic leaders in the House, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and Paul Tonko and Mike Doyle on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Solar and wind now provide electricity a lower cost over the lifetimes of generation facilities than all forms of fossil and nuclear fuels, including the cheaper natural gas provided by the fracking boom. The lifecycle costs of solar and wind are lower because once their equipment is built and installed, they don’t have to continuously pay for fuel because they just harvest free sunlight and wind. The problem of making a rapid transition to renewables under capitalism is that investor-owned utilities have no incentive to shut down operating fossil and nuclear power plants in order to switch to renewables. This capitalist barrier to renewables is why we must socialize the power sector and operate it at cost for public benefit instead of for private profit.

Buildings

The Biden plan for the buildings sector, which accounts for 12% of carbon emissions, allocates $213 billion in tax credits and grants to stimulate the building or retrofitting of 2 million private sector affordable housing units and commercial buildings, including 1 million apartments and 500,000 homes. At this rate of 250,000 buildings per year, it would take 480 years to retrofit the 120 million buildings in the U.S. It is not a serous plan for the buildings sector.

The Biden plan calls for $40 billion to improve the infrastructure of public housing. This investment doesn’t begin to meet the need. The New York City Housing Authority alone needs $68.5 billion through 2028 to fix problems with lead, mold, vermin, elevators, roofs, and boilers. In the winter of 2017, 80% of NYCHA residents went for periods without heat. NYCHA is the nation’s largest public housing authority, with about a fifth of the 950,000 public housing units in the U.S. Its 179,000 units in 326 projects are officially home to some 400,000 people but actually house about 600,000 people. Many family and extended-family members are not on the leases and officially counted, but stay in these apartments in order to keep their rents down so they can pay for other essential needs.

By comparison, the Green New Deal for Public Housing introduced by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for up to $180 billion to retrofit, rehabilitate, and decarbonize all public housing units in the U.S. Our Ecosocialist Green New Deal budget is a 10-year $6.5 trillion plan to make all buildings in the U.S. zero to negative carbon emissions while providing affordable housing for all. It invests $2.5 trillion to build 25 million new units of public housing in order to make affordable decent housing a realized human right. The US had a shortage of 7.8 million units of affordable housing for very low income (7.5 million) and homeless (400,000) households and individuals in 2017, according the National Low Income Housing Coalition using US Census data. The US Department of Education reported that 1.5 million school children experienced a period of homeless in 2017. Reserving 40% of the units, 10 million units, for low-income people would ensure they all have access to affordable housing. But this public housing would be mixed-income in order to reduce race and class segregation, with professionals and middle-income working people living in the same developments with low-income people as they do in public housing in many European countries. The plan invests $2 trillion to cover the upfront costs of retrofitting private sector buildings for energy efficiency and heat pumps and induction stoves to replace gas for heating and cooking. The cost of these retrofits will be paid back by building owners and tenants over time from the savings they get from the lower cost of electrified heating and cooking compared to fossil fuels. It also invests $2 trillion in rooftop and community solar and in energy storage to make buildings significant producers of clean energy.

Manufacturing

Manufacturing accounts for 22% of the U.S. carbon footprint. Biden’s plan invests $300 billion in manufacturing, but the emphasis is on increasing domestic manufacturing and supply chains. Semiconductors and medical supplies are emphasized and, impacting on carbon emissions, heat pumps and electric vehicles are mentioned. The only direct carbon reduction investment without any amount specified is to “establish ten pioneer facilities that demonstrate carbon capture retrofits for large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities.”

Our Ecosocialist Green New Deal manufacturing program would invest $4 trillion over 10 years to eliminate carbon emissions, not seek to capture and store them. It would replace carbon-emitting production with carbon-free or carbon-negative production. It would go through all production technologies and substitute clean alternatives for dirty incumbents. It would replace coke ovens with electric arc furnaces for steel production. It would replace Portland cement, which accounts for 8% of the world’s carbon footprint due to its use of calcium carbonate in which the calcium hardens the cement and the carbon evaporates into the atmosphere. Replacements include a number of zero carbon alternatives using other hardening materials as well as negative carbon alternatives, including one that uses bacteria to grow cement bricks and another that hardens the cement by absorbing and sequestering carbon. While the chemical industry uses 29% of all energy used in manufacturing, there is no reason why it can’t be wind and solar instead of fossil fuels that produce the heat and electricity used.

Of the $4 trillion investment in manufacturing, our plan would spend $3 trillion over 10 years building green machinery and factories. These green industries would include a green chemicals industry based on biodegradable instead of synthetic chemicals that are toxic and persist in the environment. It would design and build carbon-free and carbon-negative production systems in all sectors — power, transportation, manufacturing, buildings, and agriculture. $1 trillion of that $3 trillion investment would be dedicated to transferring these clean production systems to poor countries in the Global South as part of a Global Green New Deal that fosters a green industrialization in poor countries for decent living standards and economic sovereignty.

In contrast to the Biden’s “Clean” Energy Standard promotion of waste incinerators that emit carbon and other highly toxic chemicals like dioxin, mercury, and lead, our plan would spend $1 trillion over 10 years building a zero waste re-use and recycling industry. The zero waste program would require manufacturers to take back their products when they are used up for re-use and re-cycling.

Because profit-seeking industries want to wear out the carbon-intensive production systems they currently use before they will consider replacement technologies, the Ecosocialist Green New Deal would socialize industries where needed in order to speed the transition to clean technologies. The depleted U.S. machine tool industry is a high priority because it is needed to build the green machinery that will be needed for clean production by other industries.

Agriculture

The Biden plan doesn’t have a plan for agriculture, which accounts for 10% of U.S. carbon emissions. Regenerative organic agriculture has the potential to make a much bigger impact in reducing atmospheric carbon by rebuilding carbon-rich soils than from simply decarbonizing farm production. The White House Fact Sheet claims to be “positioning the U.S. agricultural sector to lead the shift to net-zero emissions while providing new economic opportunities for farmers,” but offers no policies or investments to make that happen.

The one concrete agricultural climate policy that Biden administration officials have broached did not make it into the American Jobs Plan. The policy was “carbon farming,” which would have paid farmers up to $30 billion to adopt regenerative agriculture practices that draw carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil. Carbon farming can be a major contributor to carbon drawdown if it is incorporated into broader regenerative agriculture practices that integrate the agroecologies of farms into surrounding ecosystems. Without that broader approach, carbon farming could incentivize land clearing and monocultural plantations that reduce biodiversity, reduce the productivity of surrounding ecosystems, and lower the carbon uptake of the surrounding landscape. With Wall Street private equity firms and billionaires like Bill Gates now the biggest owners of farmland, carbon farming could be used to “offset” carbon emissions by other businesses they own, resulting in no net reduction in atmospheric carbon.

Our Ecosocialist Green New Deal would invest $1 trillion over 10 years to support a transition to 100% organic agriculture. Since the labor requirements of regenerative agriculture are higher, the plan pays farmers for the additional labor they will need. Policies to support regenerative agriculture include banning corporate agriculture so the farms belong to the actual farmers and parity pricing of all agricultural commodities to guarantee a living income above the costs of production. The plan includes the production of green agricultural machinery and building regional processing facilities to support regenerative farms.

Natural Climate Solutions

The Biden plan budgets for $10 billion for Civilian Climate Corps with the general statement that it will work on “conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice.” Our Ecosocialist Green New Deal budgets $2 trillion over 10 years to employ 4 million people in a revived Civilian Conservation Corps to work primarily on the restoration of forest, wetland, mangrove, grassland, and agricultural ecosystems for carbon drawdown. $100 billion is also invested in upgrading national and state park infrastructure to the recommendations of the American Society of Civil Engineers and $100 billion is budgeted over the 10 years for hazardous waste sites clean-up.

Carbon drawdown through natural climate solutions — restoring forest, wetland, mangrove, grassland, and agricultural ecosystems — should be a central priority of any serious climate action plan. About half of the world’s original forests have been cut down. Fostering the regrowth of natural forests with all their biodiversity and ecosystem benefits, as opposed to planting monocultural tree plantations, would absorb 9 GtC per year over the first 30 years, equal to about 23% of current annual carbon emissions. Scientists have estimated that restoring the world’s original forests that have been cut down could draw down 205 GtC when the forests mature, which is about two thirds of the extra 300 GtC in the atmosphere as a result of human activity, primarily from fossil fuel burning, deforestation, soil degradation, and cement making. The study warns, however, that climate change is already reducing the area of land that can be reforested. Even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C, the area available for forest restoration could be reduced by a fifth by 2050.

The restoration of living soils also has significant carbon drawdown potential. The world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock. More carbon is stored in biomass below ground than above. Scientists estimate that there are 2,500 GtC in soil, compared 560 GtC in plant and animal life above ground. A 2020 study in Nature Sustainability estimates that soil carbon represents 25% of the potential of natural climate solutions. It could store 24 GtC per year, of which 40% would come from the protection of existing soil carbon and 60% from rebuilding depleted stocks.

Climate Debt

Biden made no international commitments to address global warming in either his American Jobs Plan or his Earth Day announcement. He did, however, include $1.2 billion for the Green Climate Fund in his budget proposal to Congress on April 9. The Green Climate Fund was established by U.N. climate change conference in Cancun in 2010 to have rich countries finance projects to counter global warming in poor countries. The fund has sought to raise $100 billion per year by 2020, but only $8.3 billion total had been received by July 2020.

Environmental justice groups responded to the token U.S. contribution to international climate justice financing by calling upon the U.S. to contribute $800 billion over 10 years to climate action financing in the Global South over the next decade as a down payment on the U.S. climate debt to the world. They declared that the new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) by the U.S. under the Paris Climate Agreement of 50% by 2030 was not nearly enough. They called upon the U.S. to make a Fair Shares NDC of 195% by 2030 from the 2005 level. 70% should come from cutting domestic emissions and 125% from providing international finance to cut emissions in developing countries. They also rejected the “net zero” concept because it will promote a huge land grab by foreign corporations for tree plantations in the Global South to “offset” their carbon emissions elsewhere. The offsets allow continued use of carbon-emitting energy sources and the tree plantations degrade carbon-storing biodiverse natural forest ecosystems and displace indigenous people from the lands that provide their means to life.

The U.S. climate debt is not only due to its historical emissions. It is part of a broader ecological debt from the destruction of carbon-storing forests, soils, and wetlands by the resource-extracting foreign corporations of the Global North that have expropriated the resources, destroyed the biodiversity, and impoverished the people of the Global South. We in the U.S. are linked to this destruction of biodiversity by the globalization of supply chains and trade. This ecological unequal exchange exploits the rainforests, agricultural lands, and fisheries of the Global South to provide wood, palm oil, and other food and fiber products to the rich countries. The U.S. is the world’s biggest importer of the tropical products of the Global South, which means the U.S. is the top destroyer of carbon-storing and ecosystem-stabilizing biodiversity.

While the THRIVE Agenda, like the Biden plan, makes no international climate commitments, Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal did make a “fair share” commitment to invest $200 billion over 10 years in the Green Climate Fund and to a 107% cut in carbon emissions by 2030 below the 2017 level (which was already about 15% lower than the 2005 level referenced in the Biden plan). 71% of the carbon cuts would be domestic and 36% in the Global South with U.S. aid.

Our Ecosocialist Green New Deal budgeted $1 trillion over 10 years for a Global Green New Deal, with the option to increase that commitment to meet needs and opportunities as they arise. The emphasis is on transferring of green machinery for renewable energy and clean manufacturing. The aim is to increase increase the wealth and economic self-reliance in the long-exploited countries of the Global South and thus compensate for the revenues lost from cutting the international trade that now drives biodiversity destruction. The Civilian Conservation Corps budgeted at $2 trillion over 10 years would employ 4 million people, internationally as well as domestically, for carbon-storing reforestation, soil revitalization, and other habitat restoration.

The climate emergency is global. If the U.S. limits itself to domestic action alone, dangerous climate change will continue because U.S.-based global corporations and domestic consumption remain prime drivers of carbon emissions and the destruction of carbon-storing habitat around the world. A Global Green New Deal that pays off the climate and ecological debt to the Global South in order to aid their climate-safe economic development is an investment in the habitability of the whole planet, including the U.S.

Climate mobilization, Oakland, November 2015. (Photo: 350.org)

Ecosocialist Solutions

Climate activists are making immediate demands on Biden, Congress, and state and local governments. They are fighting for a ban on fracking, a halt to new oil and gas pipelines, and an end to building any new fossil fuel infrastructure. If this infrastructure is built, the powerful corporations that build it will expect profits from burning fossil fuels for decades more.

We are winning some of these fights. The Delaware Basin Water Commission recently banned fracking in their jurisdiction. Michigan stopped expansion of Enbridge Line 5 last year. Biden stopped construction of the Keystone XL pipeline upon taking office. He could also halt by executive order construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline for moving fracked oil from the Bakken shale field in North Dakota and Enbridge Line 3 for moving tar sands oil from Alberta. These pipeline fights are going on across the country, from the Mountain Valley Pipeline in the east to the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline in the west. The movement is fighting the construction of new gas-fired power plants from coast to coast. Despite Obama-Biden loan guarantees for new nukes in 2013, the anti-nuclear movement is steadily winning nuke by nuke to shut down the aging and therefore more accident-prone nuclear plants in the U.S.

These fights against new fossil fuel infrastructure and nukes are about stopping more harm. We must also keep demanding more investment in clean energy and natural climate solutions. That is what the broad progressive environmental movement is demanding with the THRIVE Agenda. All of us should demand more.

But the climate emergency demands more than stopping more damage and more public clean energy investment in what remains a capitalist economy. It requires system change.

Flowing from its structure of competitive profit-seeking and capital accumulation, capitalism has an inherent grow-or-die imperative that relentlessly devours nature and spits out pollution. Its power structure gives super-rich oligarchs and their giant corporations command of production and dominance in public policy-making. They fight to continue profiting from the energy sources and technologies they now have. We cannot restore the climate to a safe zone below 350 ppm as long as capitalism remains the dominant mode of production.

That is why our Ecosocialist Green New Deal focuses on public enterprise and planning to get the clean energy transformation done on the rapid time scale it needs to be done. We need social ownership and democratic administration of the key industries of the economy in order to coordinate the rapid conversion of all productive sectors to 100% clean renewable energy and zero, and soon negative, carbon emissions. We need economic democracy to have the power to carry through the transition. We need ecosocialist solutions.

Howie Hawkins was the 2020 Green Party candidate for President.

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