Biden’s Climate Proposals: Tiptoeing Across the Starting Line

Image by Li-An Lim.

President Joe Biden announced on Earth Day that under the Paris climate agreement, the United States will pledge a 50-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. He also reiterated his intention to “set a course” toward “net zero emissions economy-wide” by 2050.

This was a welcome change from life under the previous president, who had rejected all action on climate, even the toothless Paris emissions pledges (known to bureaucrats everywhere as “Nationally Determined Contributions,” or NDCs). Yet there are at least three things wrong with Biden’s climate vision: a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030 is too slow; the “net zero emissions by 2050” goal is no more than a euphemism for continued burning of fossil fuels; and the president has not articulated any strategy or mechanism for achieving even these overly modest goals. In other words, there’s no plan in the Biden plan.

The only strategy, it seems, is to infuse the U.S. economy with trillions of dollars of funds for energy and other infrastructure, then hand the keys over to the corporate sector and wait for them to figure out how to wean the economy off of fossil fuels.

The Biden pledge to cut emissions in half within a decade has wowed the media, but it’s not as impressive as it seems. That reduction is relative to the year 2005, when our national emissions were significantly higher than they are now. The neat, round-number pledge of 50 percent takes credit, so to speak, for reductions that are already in the bag. Set those aside, and Biden’s goal is to cut current emissions by just 43 percent.

A 43-percent pledge falls well short of what is needed. The latest edition of the authoritative United Nations’ Emissions Gap Report shows that to give the Earth a fighting chance to avoid catastrophic heating of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial temperatures, we must, between 2021 and 2030, shrink global emissions by 57 percent. The NDC pledges of all nations combined, noted the report, would come nowhere close to achieving that necessary reduction. Adding in the Biden pledge, which came four months after the UN report was published, doesn’t substantially change the dismal math.

Annual U.S. greenhouse emissions remain second-highest in the world, and our cumulative historical contribution to atmospheric carbon is the largest of any nation; therefore, we have a moral obligation to make cuts that are much larger on a percentage basis than the minimum necessary global reductions. The Biden targets effectively shirk that responsibility. Whereas the Emissions Gap Report calls, as a minimum, for an almost 60 percent decrease from today’s global emissions, the Biden target would, by 2030, sustain U.S. emissions at almost 60 percent of today’s oversized greenhouse-gas output.

The “net zero” head-fake

Over time, government and industry have adopted ever more inventive circumlocutions designed to make climate-mitigation measures and technologies sound a lot more impressive than they are. (My favorite example is featured in an EPA-certified decal on the left rear window of our fourteen-year-old Honda Civic hybrid sedan: PARTIAL ZERO EMISSIONS VEHICLE.) Now in recent years, with the point of no return for decisive climate action fast approaching, the designers of climate policy have converged on a term that, while comprising only seven letters, is big enough to contain all of our hopes: “net zero.”

The adoption of “net zero” grows out of a longstanding desire to keep burning fossil fuels for decades to come—especially in power plants, where coal and gas are able to provide the steady, continuous “base load” that wind and solar sources cannot support. That desire is wrapped within another seemingly ambitious Biden’s pledge: to achieve a “carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.” In this context, “carbon-free” is not the same as fossil-fuel-free.

Biden himself has noted that fossil-fueled power stations can be made ostensibly “carbon-free” by capturing exhaust from the smokestack, extracting almost all the CO2, and injecting it belowground. This has not actually been done in practice (except as a technique for extracting more oil, which does not reduce emissions), but just the idea of carbon burial has long enabled governments and utilities to formulate “net zero by year X” emissions targets.

In contrast, another nominally “net zero” process, electricity generation from plant biomass, has been widely adopted in the U.S. and elsewhere. The European Union classifies biomass burning as “renewable,” so over the past decade, biomass, mostly in the form of wood pellets, has come to account for well over half of the union’s “carbon-free” electricity supply. But, as always, there’s a catch. The wood is obtained mostly from live trees, leading to extensive deforestation in Eastern Europe. In Estonia, the land-use sector, which includes forestry, is traditionally a net accumulator of carbon from the atmosphere. Now, with extensive clearcutting underway to feed Europe’s power plants, Estonia’s forest lands are on course to become a net carbon emitter by 2030.

As it has become increasingly clear that neither old-school carbon capture nor electricity-from-biomass alone will be sufficient to achieve “net zero” emissions economy-wide, strategists have gravitated toward the clever idea of combining bioenergy with carbon sequestration, the goal being to achieve not just carbon neutrality but a net reduction of emissions. In the concept called “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS), harvests from large plantations of trees or other high-yield biomass crops would be dried and pelletized, hauled to power plants, and burned like coal to produce electricity, as in the EU’s “renewable” system. But with BECCS, the CO2 emitted from the biomass-fed power plants would be captured and buried before escaping the smokestack.

BECCS would be aimed at a double win: reduction of atmospheric CO2 plus electricity generation. But closer examination shows that it would fail on both counts, delivering less net energy and capturing less net carbon than promised. That’s because vast quantities of energy would have to be expended in growing and harvesting biomass crops, hauling the biomass to the processing factory, grinding and pelletizing, hauling pellets to the power plant, sucking CO2 out of the smokestack, liquefying the CO2, hauling the liquid to an abandoned oil or gas well, and injecting it under high pressure.

Energy expenditures for all of those processes would, in sum, reduce the net energy produced by the BECCS power plant by 25 to 100 percent. If the energy input comes from fossil fuels (as would be the case well into the future), a goodly portion of the carbon-capture benefits of BECCS also would be canceled out.

Growing the plantations to feed BECCS would do the kind of ecological and social damage to the entire Earth that Europe’s biomass-burning is doing to Estonia. To pull less than one-third of human-produced CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere would require the planting of bioenergy crops on as much land as is already used to grow the world’s food, feed, and fiber crops. As much as half of all natural forests, grasslands, and savannahs could be lost, wiping out more biodiversity than would die off with a global temperature rise of 2+ degrees above pre-industrial levels—the very scale of disaster that carbon sequestration is aimed at preventing.

Planting and harvesting vast new acreages of biomass crops would also break down organic matter in soils, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and canceling out a big portion of what’s being captured. Indeed, if very large natural landscapes are brought into production of feedstocks for BECCS, the whole project could become a net carbon emitter.

It’s not surprising, given these problems, that there are no full-scale BECCS facilities in operation; nevertheless, the very idea that they can be deployed in the future will be incorporated into climate models to claim the theoretical possibility of “net zero by 2050” for a long time to come—or at least until 2045 or so.

As it becomes clearer that world-scale biomass burning would be a fiasco, those seeking an alternative route to “net zero” (including Biden) have latched onto the idea of pulling CO2 directly out of thin air, in an industrial process known as “direct-air capture.” But the technology is not safely applicable at large scale, and it has impossibly large energy requirements.

James Dyke, Robert Watson, and Wolfgang Knorr of the University of Exeter, the University of East Anglia, and Lund University, respectively, have been researching climate change for decades but they’d never raised objections to “net zero” claims until this year’s Earth Day, when they published an article admitting that “the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us.” Their conclusion: “We have arrived at the painful realization that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.”

If legislation emerges from the Biden climate plan as it’s currently conceived, its Congressional sponsors should level with the American people and call it the “Not Zero by 2050 Act.”

A hole that must be plugged

The gaping hole in the middle of Biden’s climate vision—a deficiency shared by the Green New Deal and almost all other such plans—is the lack of any policy to directly phase out the extraction and burning of fossil fuels on a strict deadline.

Instead, the mainstream climate movement is counting on indirect nudges from market competition, carbon pricing, disinvestment, etc., along with partial withdrawal of federal support for fossil fuels (by, for example, ending subsidies to the industry or banning new leases for exploration and drilling on federal land).

If our nation and world had committed to such measures in, say, 1990, when the world was just waking up to climate change, there might have been enough time for such gradualist policies to have an impact. But if, at this late date, high-emitting countries were at long last to drag themselves across the starting line and declare ambitious 2030 emissions targets, it would be much too late for market nudges and regulatory half-measures to succeed.

The 2020 Emissions Gap Report notes that if the world were to begin cutting emissions tomorrow, the rate of reduction required to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming would have to be four times as fast as the rate that would have been required had we started just in 2010. An 8 percent annual decrease in fossil fuel use will be obligatory through the 2020s and beyond, and that can be achieved only through nationalization of the fossil fuel industries, followed by imposition of mandatory, fast-falling limits on the numbers of barrels of oil, cubic feet of gas, and tons of coal coming out of the ground and into the economy each year. I realize that such a proposal would be a non-starter in the current White House and Congress. But that doesn’t change the fact that such steep reductions are necessary.

When the new White House fact sheet on the climate plan tells us there are “multiple paths” to reaching “carbon free” electricity and other goals “while supporting a strong economy,” it’s not talking about eliminating fossil fuels; rather, it’s implicitly referring to reliance on gimmicks like carbon-capture schemes or forest-based offset programs. (Under the latter, landowners can simply refrain from cutting their trees and thereby earn carbon credits that they sell to utilities or other companies, which can use the credits as permits to keep burning fossil fuels. The result is an overall increase in emissions.) Electric utilities are counting on the continued federal laxity toward fossil energy as they make plans to build a staggering 235 new natural gas–fired power plants in coming years.

As if tolerating fossil fuels was not dangerous enough, the White House fact sheet also assumes a continued dependence on nuclear energy—not only to help cobble together a nominally “carbon-free” power sector but also for generating “green hydrogen” that can be burned to, among other things, keep the airline industry aloft.

The fact sheet furthermore declares an intention to “ship American-made, clean energy products — like EV batteries— around the world.” In other words, U.S. companies will increase their imports of lithium, cobalt, rare earths, and other metals—mined and processed in other lands at incalculable ecological and humanitarian costs—in order to manufacture and export electric-vehicle batteries at a sweet “green” profit.

With a quest underway to replace the entire U.S. fleet of private cars and trucks with hundreds of millions of battery-powered vehicles while soon attempting to equip a brand-new national electric grid with at least 6 trillion pounds worth of batteries, I doubt that U.S. corporations will even have any surplus batteries to export under Biden’s plan. And I do not expect that either our current case of battery fever or the broader pursuit of mineral resources required by the entire high-tech “green” infrastructure will end well.

Those resources, like oil, are non-renewable and, like oil, most of them lie under someone else’s soil. America’s desperation to satisfy its prodigious energy appetite by pursuing fossil fuels across the globe over the past century led to political oppression and repeated military invasions—a dirty history of imperialism that could continue, this time with the prize being metals. Writing for CounterPunch way back in 2014, Don Fitz warned of “green wars” over minerals for use in renewable energy, asking,

Would the Green World Order mean that Venezuela might have less reason to fear an invasion aimed at gaining access to its heavy oils? Or, would it mean an additional invasion of Bolivia to grab its lithium for green batteries? Would northern Africa no longer need to fear attacks to secure Libyan oil? Or, would new green armies to secure solar collectors for European energy be added to existing armies? Across the globe, those marching with the red, white and blue banner of the War for Oil would continue to invade. But they could be joined by those marching with a green banner.

Which FDR will show up?

In April, an array of civil society organizations that included Friends of the Earth U.S. and the Sunrise Movement submitted a report titled “United States of America: Fair Shares Nationally Determined Contribution” to the UN body overseeing the Paris agreement. The report urges a 70 percent cut in U.S. emissions by 2030. That is a much more robust NDC than Biden proposes, and it’s also more realistic—not realistic in the current political context, of course, but rather in its acknowledgement that very aggressive action will be necessary if we are to avoid a torrid 2-degree future.

While the U.S. and other affluent countries need to go on an energy diet, the majority of people in many other countries, many of them in Africa and South Asia, are starved of energy, whether from fossil or renewable sources. At the same time, many face severe exposure and vulnerability to climate disruption. Accordingly, the Fair Shares report calls for Washington to provide $800 billion over the next decade in climate reparations to low-income countries for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. In addition, it proposes up to $3 trillion to help those countries implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement goals.

On the downside, the Fair Shares report has a deficiency in common with the Biden non-plan and the Green New Deal. It suggests no surefire mandatory mechanism to fulfill its goal of driving fossil fuel use down by 70 percent by 2030 and down to (real) zero in time to avoid catastrophe.

We are faced with an urgent need to completely ditch our primary sources of energy—oil, gas, and coal—on a crash schedule and partially replace them with new systems. Given the urgency, we do not have the luxury of reducing fossil-fuel use at the same gradual rate at which non-fossil energy capacity, with its wholly new, coast-to-coast electric grid big enough to support “the electrification of everything,” can be built.

Fossil fuels will have to be phased out at a rate that can prevent catastrophic warming—that is, much faster than a new renewable-energy system can be developed to compensate. Therefore, the necessary energy transformation will, by necessity, be a time of smaller total energy supply.

The White House’s climate ambitions don’t follow such logic. They aim to satisfy, throughout the transition, as much energy demand as the market can bear. Whether that entails “multiple paths to carbon-free” or “net zero,” the result will be long-term dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy. A direct, mandatory, accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels would rule out such self-delusion, bringing us face to face with our predicament and spurring creative adaptation to a new, low-energy reality.

Like the Green New Deal, the Biden vision has some laudable features that really will be essential to getting us through the coming decades. We do need a buildup (modest, not overblown) of non-fossil energy sources. Even more importantly, provisions to ensure economic justice, security, and equity for the non-affluent majority are all urgently needed.

In calling for such policies as part of broader infrastructure legislation, President Biden has explicitly invoked the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who fostered Congress’s passage in his first term of the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Works Progress Administration, the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Now that he is embracing forceful government action to solve urgent problems, Biden must be pushed further, to recognize the need for a federal cap-and-adapt policy that rapidly phases out fossil fuels while managing the consequences with economic fairness and sufficiency. In that, he would have to emulate not just the FDR of 1933-35 but the FDR of 1941 as well.

By 1941, I’m referring not to the armament buildup for World War II but rather to the federal government’s redirection of the civilian economy toward restraint in the use of scarce energy and material resources, the allocation of those resources toward essential goods and services, and the guarantee, through rationing, of universal, fair, equitable access to food and energy.

Biden’s hundred-days speech to Congress on April 28, and the broader Democratic legislative agenda, suggest that the party has explicitly abandoned the idea that the market can solve our thorniest problems in areas of economic inequality, racial justice, health care, and other issues. The global ecological emergency requires that Washington likewise ditch the naïve belief that markets can end the fossil-fuel plague. That hole in our climate policies must be plugged immediately.

Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond : Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought, where this piece first ran.

CounterPunch Magazine Archive

Read over 400 magazine and newsletter back issues here

Support CounterPunch

Make a tax-deductible monthly or one-time donation and enjoy access to our Subscriber Area.  Donate Now

Support our evolving Subscriber Area and enjoy access to all Subscribers content.  Subscribe