Senators Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are not far apart in their climate rhetoric
As is traditional at this stage in a US presidential election year, the party out of the White House has to make some tough decisions on their standard bearer.
Judging by ‘Super Tuesday’ (the latest round of intra-party elections on May 3, 2020), the Democratic party is split over its vision. This split has many causes and the US role in addressing climate change is just one of them. This debate is emblematic of the broader choices facing the electorate.
The frontrunners for the Democratic candidacy – Senators Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders – are not far apart in their climate rhetoric.
Biden’s website declares he “knows climate change is the greatest threat facing our country and our world”.
Sanders believes the “climate crisis is not only the single greatest challenge facing our country; it is also our single greatest opportunity to build a more just and equitable future”.
The urgency of the crisis, however, forces attention on proposals over rhetoric. Under the hood, there are clear differences.
Candidates' proposals on key parameters of climate policy
The debate has sharpened since the beginning of the cycle in 2019 and three clear divisions emerge.
The candidates are on different pages over the scale and speed of the decarbonisation challenge.
Sanders has wholeheartedly embraced the Green New Deal (GND), a strategy from left-leaning think tanks and championed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The thrust of the GND is to decarbonise within 10 years, or by 2030. There are however multiple iterations of the deal, with Sanders adopting one such version, settling on decarbonising transport and electricity by 2030.
Biden’s platform acknowledges the GND as a ‘crucial framework’, but aims for net-zero emissions by 2050. This year is the global deadline for decarbonisation if the plan is to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.
The US — a massive historic emitter — should aim for net-zero much earlier than the global deadline.
The domestic debate between these plans has come down to the question of cost.
Sanders openly acknowledges that his plan — over its lifetime — will involve government investment of around $16 trillion in climate-responsible infrastructure. Biden’s plan is estimated to cost around $1.7 trillion.
Those numbers prompted predictable responses from faux-economic commentariat: The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran a headline complaining about the ‘Unrealistic Economics of the Green New Deal’. There are straightforward responses to such criticisms.
Firstly, a new round of government investment in infrastructure is long overdue, at least since the original post-war New Deal.
The larger scale of investment required to make this infrastructure climate responsible represents a shift away from certain sectors (fossil fuels) and the creation of new economic sectors, with a strong argument that the net effect will be the creation of millions of new jobs.
Most importantly, this investment will avoid future losses worth trillions of dollars, a reality return-on-investment type thinking fails to recognise. This is why sober American economists, like Paul Krugman, defend Green New Deal-type spending even if it means expanding national deficit.
The second major divergence between the candidates is over what constitutes ‘clean energy’.
Biden favours the continuation of the all-of-the-above approach followed by President Obama: A pragmatic position designed to undermine the privileged position that coal enjoys in US electricity generation.
The position also produces a ‘transition’ to natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide but more methane and does not allow decarbonisation at the scale and speed required.
Sanders has come out strongly for renewables and is against most other options. This strategy has strengths and flaws from a climate perspective.
His opposition to fracking highlights the environmental costs of natural gas and undermines the pretense that it is a ‘clean’ fuel.
It is not an easy pill for certain businesses to swallow, but it makes a strong political argument to minimise the lifetime cost of energy to communities who have to live around such projects.
His opposition to nuclear energy is more complicated. Its reputation as a ‘clean’ fuel does not tally with very real costs of storing nuclear waste and massive fallout from accidents, though relatively rare.
However, it does produce massive, reliable amounts of electricity with minimal carbon footprint.
A strong argument against new nuclear energy is that it needs huge capital investment, making it more expensive than energy generated by new renewable projects.
However, the argument against quickly de-commissioning existing nuclear power plants is weaker. Some plants are likely dangerously old, but others have paid off most of their capital cost and could still play a useful role in easing a transition to real-zero emissions.
Meanwhile, there are some forms of ‘clean’ energy that are not really clean, such as biomass. This contradiction was highlighted when Sanders was asked about the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in his home state.
His claim — of carbon emissions dipping as a result — was checked in a May 2016 report by the Boston Globe, which found nuclear energy was replaced by higher-emission biomass. It is clear that Sanders has some room to refine his position here.
Finally, both candidates recognise that countries have to be rallied to scale up climate action. Both candidates are committed to keeping the US in the Paris Agreement as well.
However, they differ in their approach over the issue of climate finance, leading to an impasse in the last two conferences in Katowice and Madrid.
Developing countries have always made clear that their climate commitments are contingent on finance being provided by developed countries.
A commitment was made in the Paris Agreement to provide $100 billion each year by 2020. The last available UN estimates indicate less than half of that commitment being met.
The issue has seen an ‘arms race’ between the candidates since the last assessment. Earlier, Biden was almost silent about the need for international climate finance. He is now committed to “meet America’s climate finance pledge”, including by recommitting to the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
In concrete terms, this means that the Obama-era $3 billion commitment to the GCF — ignored by the Trump administration — will be honoured.
Biden also committed to ‘green debt relief’ for developing countries. The exact scale of this commitment is, however, currently undefined.
Sanders has since gone further on climate finance since the last assessment. He now promises $200 billion to the GCF. He also frames international climate finance as an efficient climate strategy.
“We will reduce domestic emissions by at least 71 per cent by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by 2030 — the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161 percent,” he says on his website.
Biden distinguishes himself most clearly on China’s recent carbon expansionism. He says China is gaming the international trade system and promising countries an alternative with its One Belt One Road projects.
However, Biden expands his trade concerns beyond China, proposing border carbon adjustments and future trade agreements conditioned on partners’ commitments to meet their enhanced Paris climate targets.
This has always been a controversial position and will be more controversial if applied to other developing countries.
Sanders is less concerned with China specifically and more concerned with anti-worker trade deals in general.
In a debate, he singled out the recently re-negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement for particular criticism based on its silence on climate concerns. He does, however, exclude China as a potential recipient of climate finance from the US.
In general, Sanders’ approach is much more attuned to global demands for equity, while Biden’s approach is an attempt to mobilise domestic climate action by framing it as a ‘Great Power’ contest.
These are different ideological approaches to the problem, but it is not clear if one is more pragmatic than the other.
It is clear, however, that the positions are far better than the incumbent.
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