Let’s suppose Americans choose Joe Biden to replace Donald Trump as president. (And also that the world doesn’t end sometime in the next month.) What might that mean for the fight against climate change?
In August, Biden announced a $2 trillion, four-year climate plan designed to steer energy policy away from coddling Big Oil and toward bolstering green energy. He’s outlined several energy policies he’d pursue if elected, including reducing carbon emissions and creating 10 million jobs by building out a green energy infrastructure. The financing would come from a combination of corporate income taxes and government stimulus funds. "Joe is about saying, we're going to invest that in renewable energy," said running mate Senator Kamala Harris during Wednesday night's vice presidential debate. "It's going to be about the creation of millions of jobs. We will achieve net zero emissions by 2050, carbon neutral by 2035. Joe has a plan."
Biden and Harris' plan is not the same as the New Green Deal, which floundered in the Senate in 2019 amid fierce Republican opposition. And it’s miles away from lining up a new round of pandemic stimulus funds, which Democrats and Republicans have been fighting over for the past few months. (Trump said on Tuesday that he was killing talks with Democrats on even just a regular old stimulus to keep the economy from further Covid-19 destruction, much less any kind of green stimulus. Then he apparently doubled back via late-night tweet, saying he would support some stand-alone items, like issuing $1,200 checks to Americans.) Biden’s climate plan, on the other hand, would tackle environmental problems with government funds.
This wouldn’t be Biden’s first rodeo; as Barack Obama's vice president, he coordinated the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which poured $90 billion into green energy projects and R&D to juice the economy following the financial collapse of 2008. The ARRA straight up gave cash to the struggling wind and solar industries, which had hitherto been relying on tax credits. It worked so well that the Obama administration kept its promise of doubling renewable energy generation in its first term.
In the annus horribilis that is 2020, millions of Americans are again out of work. But the current economy is all the more dire than the 2008 crisis, because a pandemic continues to rage out of control in the US, dimming hopes of a quick recovery. Still, it makes sound economic sense to pour money into green energy projects, both in the near term for creating jobs and the long term for preparing the country for a post-oil future. So what might an infusion of funds into green energy look like this time around? Biden’s plans, spelled out online, are written in broad strokes. But WIRED asked energy and environmental experts what they’d want to see in a green stimulus package, and what they make of Biden’s ideas.
One of the main things Biden has promised to upgrade is the nation’s infrastructure, which means roads, water pipelines, and broadband connections. It also means the power grid. And experts agree that’s important, because our existing energy system is woefully unprepared for the transition to a green grid. We actually have three separate regional electrical grids in the US that don’t share power super well. “It turns out, that's really important for creating a grid with a lot of renewable energy, because there's all that difference in climate across the entire United States,” says Louisiana State University environmental scientist Brian Snyder. “If it's a sunny day in California and you can produce a lot of solar, but it's not windy in the Midwest—well, right now that power can’t really move from one side of the country to the other.”
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What the country needs is new high-voltage lines to ferry energy between regions to fill gaps in generation, be it when clouds obscure the sun or when the winds die down. Biden’s plan calls for the “re-powering of lines that already exist with new technology.” That’s a bit vague; Snyder isn’t quite sure how to read it. “That could include upgrading the interconnections between the three grids, which is particularly important,” he says. “It could also mean that he wants to improve long-distance transmission by moving to HVDC [high-voltage direct current], which would also be important. Or it could just be smart-grid-type improvements. If it includes HVDC and interconnecting the three grids, then I would say it looks very promising."
Energy experts say we also need to build out an infrastructure to support the shift to electric vehicles. Biden has promised to add half a million public charging stations in the next decade. Ideally, those stations would be energized with clean sources, not natural gas—which sort of defeats the purpose of electric vehicles. Decarbonizing transportation is huge for cutting emissions: The sector uses about 28 percent of our total energy, and 99 percent of that is in the form of gasoline and diesel. “Further, the cars we drive are not nearly as efficient as a natural gas power plant,” Snyder says. “As a result, liquid fuels—diesel, gasoline, jet fuel, et cetera—account for about 45 percent of US carbon emissions. Not all of that is from cars, but that is why electrifying transport could be a big deal.”
The national infrastructure needs help well beyond the grid; the US has to prepare its cities for a world that’s already warming rapidly. Coastal cities need levees to protect people from rising seas, and metropolises need the literal greening that comes from planting more trees. In the summer, urban areas turn into heat islands that soak up and slowly release the sun’s energy overnight, resulting in temperatures 22 degrees hotter than surrounding areas with more vegetation. Communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to be located in these heat islands, which has big implications for public health, as heat exacerbates respiratory conditions like asthma. Black children in the US are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than white children.
Climate experts say that despite these challenges, we have an opportunity to leverage what’s known as multi-solving. “When there's so many crises hitting all at once, the strategic thing to do is make sure every action you take addresses more than one crisis at the same time,” says Elizabeth Sawin, codirector of Climate Interactive, a nonprofit that focuses on the intersection of climate change and inequity. Greening up cities with more trees, for instance, both cools the cities—meaning residents don’t have to use so much electricity running air-conditioning—and addresses the public health consequences of extreme heat.
As the 2009 stimulus did, a new green stimulus could pump money into the weatherization of homes in cities—that is, giving homeowners credits to install better windows, further reducing the amount of energy they need to heat or cool their residences. Biden’s plan calls for the US to weatherize 2 million homes over the next four years, and it proposes a “Civilian Climate Corps,” paid workers who would, among other tasks, plant trees in urban neighborhoods to offset that heat island effect.
This corps would also help manage forests. This would be particularly critical in California, where a warmer climate has made for bigger, fiercer wildfires. But that’s not the whole story: The West is also burning because dead vegetation has built up over the decades. That’s thanks to a policy of protecting homes by quickly putting out fires that would normally clear out such fuels. Firefighters also don’t have the capacity to do as many preventative burns as they need to. “Part of that is a manpower shortage—there's simply not enough people to be able to work on burn crews and do manual thinning operations,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, which advocates for climate action. In a recent opinion piece, Hausfather echoed Biden’s call for a return of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the massive public works project that paid the unemployed to tackle initiatives in forestry, wildlife management, flood and fire prevention, and other environmental pursuits. “That could help use the tens of millions of people who are currently unemployed or underemployed and put them to work in well-paid forest management roles,” Hausfather says.
Overall, energy experts say that the nation’s focus has to be on shifting funding to renewables, rather than sustaining coal and petroleum with taxpayer handouts. “When we're talking about stimulus, we should be talking about clean energy,” says Leah Stokes, a political scientist who studies climate and energy policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “And that's not what's happening under the Trump administration by any means.”
“The Trump administration has been more focused on bailing out fossil fuel industries than focusing on clean energy,” Stokes adds. Billions in Covid-19 relief money, for instance, have gone to the oil industry. “These are companies that were doing very poorly financially before the Covid pandemic began,” she continues. “And you sink money into it. It doesn't really go to keeping people employed. It doesn't really go to innovation and growth. What it does is it pays down debt. Maybe it pays corporate executives right before they declare bankruptcy.”
Should Biden push for a green stimulus similar to 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it might pump money into the obvious renewable industries, like solar and wild power, but also some up-and-comers. “I would say that a sort of new emerging technology that we didn't have back in 2009 is carbon capture,” says Snyder. Biden’s clean energy plan, as outlined on his campaign website, “will double down on research investments and tax incentives for technology that captures carbon and then permanently sequesters or utilizes that captured carbon.”
That would include retrofitting existing power plants and industrial buildings with technology that captures their carbon emissions, known as conventional carbon capture and storage (CCS). “Conventional CCS is important for industrial sectors that are really hard to decarbonize,” says Snyder. “For instance, the production of some plastics, hydrogen, ethanol, and ammonia. CCS may also be important for places that have coal or natural gas plants that are difficult to replace without negatively impacting grid reliability. That is, carbon capture can buy time for renewable penetration to increase.”
Another form of carbon capture is known as carbon dioxide removal, or CDR. This kind of technology sucks in air—independent of any power plant or factory—and filters out the CO2. That makes it a carbon-negative technology, because it’s actually decreasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. And that could be critical for the fight against climate change, because humanity can only decarbonize its energy infrastructure so quickly. “When the Paris Agreement set a goal of 1.5 [Celsius] of warming, people started asking, ‘How is that possible?’" says Snyder. “It turns out that without removing some CO2 from the atmosphere, it won't be possible unless we decarbonize at an implausible rate.”
The tricky bit about carbon capture is that it costs money not only to develop the technology, but also to run the machines to sweep CO2 out of the air. On top of that, it’s hard to then sell a gas that not many people want, so operators often pump it underground. It’s like buying an expensive car and locking it in your garage forever. But with redoubled government financial support—2015’s Freedom Act, signed by Obama, included a tax credit of $50 per ton of captured and sequestered carbon—the cost of carbon capture could continue to fall, which would help pull CO2 from the atmosphere while we work frantically to green up our energy infrastructure.
But while Biden's plan calls for sequestering carbon, it doesn't call for the end of fracking—the practice of injecting pressurized liquid deep underground to extract oil or gas—which helps fossil fuel companies pull more carbon out of the earth. In fact, during last night's debate, Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly insisted that Biden wants to ban fracking, prompting Harris to say emphatically: "I will repeat—and the American people know—that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact. That is a fact." This is not music to climate activists' ears: Not only does fracking free up yet more carbon for us to burn and put in the atmosphere, but the process releases methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Fracking also contaminates drinking water and releases toxic compounds into the air.
If Biden wins in November, he has promised that the US will also reaffirm its commitment to the Paris Agreement, through which the countries of the world set their own goals for emissions reductions, with the overarching goal for humanity to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels—ideally 1.5 degrees. In 2017, Trump announced that he’d abandon the agreement. The US officially began the withdrawal process in 2019, but it cannot be completed until after the 2020 election.
“Let's say Biden comes in, he wants to rejoin the Paris Agreement,” says Snyder. “His administration would produce some set of goals and the policies that would meet those goals.” That means the kinds of things we’ve been talking about—EV charging stations and the like—and how much those new policies would lower our emissions. But if we don’t hit those emissions goals, we still won’t face consequences from the Paris Agreement. “It's an imperfect agreement,” Snyder says, “but it's what we got.”
While the pandemic has been awful all around, it may also be an opportunity to jump-start the green economy, the way the US did to dig itself out of the 2008 crash. And Biden’s plan may have bipartisan appeal. “Large oil companies, especially Occidental Petroleum, but also Chevron and ExxonMobil, are very interested in carbon capture, both conventional and CDR,” Snyder says. “They see both systems as ways to apply their existing technological expertise in a new way, and as a means to continue operating in a low-carbon world.” Big power utilities, too, would have trouble objecting to a modernizing of the electric grid. That’s especially true in the western US, where in recent years ancient power lines have sparked massive wildfires.
“Of course, there will be plenty of opposition, too, both in terms of the price and from a few industrial groups, and Biden won't get a lot of what he wants,” Snyder says. “But I'd say it has a chance, which in this environment is about the best you can hope for!”