Last Tuesday, July 14th, Joe Biden released the second part of his economic agenda proposal, what he calls his ‘Build Back Better’ plan, which focuses specifically on how climate-related investments in clean energy can restimulate the economy.
The plan’s release comes on the heels of both Biden’s Unity Task Force recommendations, which gave him a host of environmental policy proposals for consideration, as well as the House select committee’s Climate Crisis Action Plan, which House Democrats created as recommendations for the party to use when creating their climate policy.
All three plans display a shift within the Democratic party to adopt more progressive ideals on climate change, and emphasize the importance of equity and environmental justice. These policy suites also give Americans a glimpse at what an economic recovery from the current recession could look like if Democrats manage to gain more control in Washington this November.
What does Biden’s Clean Energy Plan look like?
Biden’s $2 trillion Clean Energy Plan carefully intertwines policy proposals to address the coronavirus crisis, which has resulted in unprecedented unemployment rates, rectify the injustices that have targeted Black people in this country, and reinstate America as a leader in the fight against the climate crisis.
In order to address this trifecta of issues, the Biden plan outlines seven specific policy areas in which he plans to act on if elected into office.
1. Modernize our infrastructure
In revamping the entirety of American infrastructure, Biden plans to improve our country’s broken system while simultaneously creating millions of well-paid, union jobs. In particular, Biden plans to:
- Transform crumbling roadways, bridges, aviation, and ports
- Revamp the American railway system
- Ensure reliable access to public transit
- Repair water pipelines and sewer systems
- Ensure wireless broadband access to every American
- Transform abandoned industrial property
In each area of infrastructure development, Biden’s plan is clear — these investments will be made equitably, and ensure fair access to both jobs and community improvements. The plan also emphasizes the importance of using clean technologies to make these updates.
2. Improve the US auto industry
Bringing the American auto industry out of its manufacturing recession and into the twenty-first century is another major pillar of Biden’s climate plan. Central to this pillar is the manufacturing and distribution of electric vehicles. Biden plans to ensure one million new jobs in auto manufacturing, supply chains, and infrastructure building, pushing a massive expansion of American-made and sourced clean, electric vehicles. This involves installing 500,000 new electric vehicle charging stations, converting all 500,000 American school buses to electric vehicles, and ensuring that all new American built buses produce zero emissions by 2030.
3. Achieve a carbon-free power sector by 2035
According to Biden’s plan, transforming our electricity sector holds significant job opportunities, involving everyone from scientists to construction workers to engineers. In order to reach net-zero in the electricity sector by 2035, the Biden plan introduces massive investments in clean energy and energy efficiency. It also includes a reformation of tax incentives, in order to boost clean energy sales and cut electricity bills across the country, and increase investment in carbon sequestration technology.
4. Invest dramatically in building energy efficiency
Over the next four years, Biden’s plan outlines a path to upgrade four million buildings and weatherize two million homes, creating one million jobs in doing so. This piece of the plan also offers massive cost savings — upgrading the four million commercial buildings will return about a quarter of the savings to state and local governments that are currently at a massive loss for funding. Direct cash rebates and low-cost financing for home energy efficiency upgrades is also a hallmark piece of the proposal, with a promise to specifically assist those with higher energy burdens in low-income and rural areas. The plan expands upon its care for low-income communities, stating that Biden will invest in constructing 1.5 million affordable homes and public housing units targeted at reducing racial inequities in the housing market, and will also invest in improving educational infrastructure, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.
5. Invest in clean energy innovation
By increasing federal procurement by $400 billion in Biden’s first term, he intends to invest heavily in not only the clean energy technologies currently available, but also in further research and development of clean energy development. In doing so, Biden intends to create a new Advanced Research Projects Agency on Climate, which will support new research in clean energy. Biden also aims to invest much of this research funding in land-grant universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and other minority serving institutions.
6. Advance sustainable agriculture and conservation
In advancing agriculture and conservation techniques, Biden proposes a host of policies, including:
- Creating a Civilian Climate Corps to work towards conserving and restoring American public land
- Generating more than 250,000 jobs through front-loaded investments in cleaning local economies from the impacts of resource extraction
- Helping farmers leverage new technologies to increase productivity and profit by providing low-cost financing for a transition to cleaner methods and equipment and rewarding farmers for sequestering carbon
- Improving the resilience of our food supply by minimizing the impacts of climate-induced drought and precipitation
- Bolstering equitable access for small and medium-sized farms by enforcing regulations upon large corporate farms
- Investing in diversity in the agricultural sector by ending discrimination in federal farming assistance
7. Secure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunities
Every aspect of Biden’s plan is underscored through the lens of environmental justice; the plan states that “he will prioritize addressing historic, environmental injustice” in every aspect of his approach. This also entails having a specific environmental justice agenda, with provisions to:
- Ensure that “disadvantaged communities receive 40% of overall benefits” from all of Biden’s investments laid out in his plan, and will specifically address eliminating legacy pollution
- Create a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to identify communities across the country that are most at risk to the combined effects of climate impacts, economic unrest, racial inequity and environmental pollution
- Establish a new Environmental and Climate Justice division within the Justice Department in order to hold polluters accountable
- Bring stakeholders from environmental justice communities into the conversation through working groups that report directly to the White House
Will Biden’s $2 trillion be used efficiently?
Biden’s plan to focus on reviving the economy through investments in green stimulus is a massive win for environmentalists, but there is one fundamental concern Democrats must consider — economic growth tends to coincide with increased emissions, even if that growth is in green industry. And this plan is centered around economic growth. Biden and his team are going to have to work to prove that these investments will actually reduce emissions, make an impact on the environment as well as the economy, and ensure that the $2 trillion worth of taxpayer dollars going into this program are being used effectively.
To further understand, let’s take a look at Obama’s “Cash for Clunkers” program, which was part of his 2009 stimulus to revive the American economy. This program spent $2.85 billion to encourage Americans to get rid of their old, emissions-heavy cars and trade them for newer, more energy-efficient vehicles. While the program did somewhat reduce emissions, the plan ended up costing between $91 and $301 per ton of carbon avoided, and studies have shown that many of the individuals who used the program would have bought new cars even without the additional incentive. The average cost to eliminate one ton of carbon emissions, estimated by the Obama administration, is only about $50 per ton.
Biden needs to ensure that his spending is going directly towards the most cost-efficient ways to reduce emissions, and further modeling must be done to prove that the policies outlined in his report would yield real results. This opportunity may be our last big shot at transitioning the American economy away from fossil fuels before it’s too late. We can’t be investing trillions of dollars into programs that bring about only moderate emissions reductions, or in a worse case scenario increase carbon emissions. It is imperative that Democrats get this right and learn from the mistakes made in Obama’s recovery act.
How does Biden’s plan compare?
Biden’s plan comes after the release of two comparable climate action plans: Biden’s Unity Task Force climate recommendations and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’ Climate Crisis Action Plan. The three plans all have very similar recommendations, proving that not only is Biden listening to the advice of his Task Force, which is filled with individuals from the more progressive wing of the Democrat party, but also that he is fairly in line on climate with the general goals of other Democrats.
All three reports have a very clear purpose — the United States must hit net-zero emissions by 2050. This is in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s international targets to ensure our planet’s temperature does not increase more than 1.5 ° Celsius, and is also on track with the goals of other countries leading on climate. The plans also include very similar benchmark targets, although there are some discrepancies among them, listed here:
|Interim Target||Biden’s Clean Economy Plan||Unity Task Force Plan||House Climate Crisis Action Plan|
|Eliminate emissions in the electricity sector by:||2035||2035||2040|
|All new buildings will have net-zero emissions by:||2030||2030||2030|
|All light-duty vehicles sold will be zero emission by:||No specific year||No specific year||2035|
|All school busses will produce zero emissions by:||2030||2025||No specific year|
Biden’s plan also intertwines a more specific objective — reviving the American economy once the coronavirus crisis is mitigated and it is safe to go back to work. While the other two plans were created in the context of the pandemic, Biden’s climate agenda is specifically marketed as an economic recovery plan, part of his ‘Build Back Better’ set of policy proposals. This makes it even more critical that the investments going into his program are used effectively, emphasizing that reducing emissions and reaching the targets outlined are a top priority.
The House plan also includes something Biden’s plan lacks — a price on carbon pollution. Adding a carbon price to his plan is one potential way Biden could build revenue for his proposed projects while simultaneously incentivizing corporations to move away from fossil fuels without spending more government money.
A more inclusive climate movement within the Democratic party
Another common theme throughout all three plans is a clear focus on environmental justice. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal in early 2019, environmental justice was not an obvious priority of mainstream Democrat environmental policy. But these three reports suggest that it has become paramount in the last year and a half.
All three plans connect climate change to the systemic racial inequities within American policy, and highlight the importance of reducing impacts on BIPOC communities. Each report goes above and beyond this as well, emphasizing the need to use environmental policy to rectify historical injustices. Environmental justice, and a focus on low-income and BIPOC communities, are included within every pillar of Biden’s plan, every category within the House report, and every section of the Unity Task Force report.
Similar to the issue of environmental justice, all three reports are careful to include an emphasis on fair labor practices. This is very deliberate — the 2019 Green New Deal, although written with labor unions in mind, failed to gain the support of many prominent U.S. labor unions.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, our country’s largest organization of labor unions that represents over 12.5 million workers, said in April 2019 of the Green New Deal, “We weren’t part of the process, so the worker’s interest wasn’t really figured into it.”
But after Biden’s plan was released on July 14th, Trumka tweeted, “Quality jobs and labor rights are key to rebuilding our infrastructure—and America’s middle class. @JoeBiden’s plan is strong on all these,” clearly displaying his acceptance of the new plan.
The intentional inclusion of labor unions into the conversation, as well as the right to organize, and the necessity for job training and transitioning programs for workers in the fossil fuel space repeated throughout all three of these plans, increasingly display the shift for the Democratic party to be more inclusive on the issue of climate change.
What does this mean for Democrats moving forward?
Despite being altogether a very progressive list of environmental policies, the recommendations do fail to include a ban on fracking, which many youth climate leaders and more progressive politicians have called for. But Joe Biden has been very clear since the beginning of the Democratic primary: he refuses to ban fracking outright. The plan also does not have a specific date for completely phasing out fossil fuels, which similarly many climate advocates have pushed for. Banning fracking and phasing out fossil fuels were policies included in the climate plans of both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in their primary campaigns.
However, other than these few differences, all three policy reports are very in line with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, and both Warren and Sanders’ proposals, leaning more towards the progressive side of Democrat environmentalism.
Many climate activists were worried that when Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, he would return to an Obama-era climate policy platform, which would simply not be strong enough to address the current level of climate crisis we are facing. But it is clear that Biden would not only bring back much of the Obama-era policies that the Trump Administration has reversed, but his administration would go beyond, introducing an environmental apparatus that would be in touch with the leading science on the issue and would not leave any Americans behind.
Even from the start of his campaign for Democratic nominee, Biden’s climate plan has progressed. Originally, he advocated for spending $1.7 trillion on clean energy over 10 years; this Clean Energy Plan outlines spending $2 trillion just during Biden’s first term.
It is very important to note the catalyst for this shift — the increasingly growing movement on climate in the United States. Since 2016, the number of Americans who say that “dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the president” has increased by 14 percentage points. Much of this is due to the movement that has happened in the past four years. In 2018, young people across the country began to turn out in droves to strike against climate change every Friday, which is only temporarily subsiding now due to the coronavirus pandemic. These protests have been a tremendous motivator for change, and have brought the issue of climate change to the forefront of political conversations.
“It is up to all of us to translate this enthusiasm into action under the diverse coalition we need to mobilize behind Vice President Biden in November,” Unity Task Force member Rep. A. Donald McEachin says.
Unlike Hillary Clinton in 2016, Joe Biden is making a concerted effort to bring in stakeholders from across the Democratic party. On the issue of climate change, it seems that Democrats are united — policies must focus on equity and be inclusive of all Americans, and we must use the current economic crisis as an opportunity to improve our country instead of returning back to a “normal” full of injustices.
While there is still work to be done to ensure that Biden’s plan will efficiently use its investments to get the emissions reduction outcomes our country so desperately needs, Joe Biden is clearly moving in the right direction, and is taking the environment into account throughout his policy objectives.