Bernie v Biden: How Green can the White House get?

The two Democrats’ green plans are sometimes very different

The two Democratic presidential candidates who realistically appear to have a chance of ending up in the White House are Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.

As might be expected, given their respective labels of progressive and moderate, the difference in their approaches to implementing the Green New Deal is the difference between a revolutionary reworking of the US economy and a measured introduction of solidly sustainable policies.

Both represent a complete turnaround from the Trump White House, which took the US out of the Paris Accord, has undone Obama-era fuel efficiency, clean air and clean water regulations, has encouraged drilling, mining and the use of fossil fuels and slowed to a standstill Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prosecutions of companies that pollute and flagrantly break regulations. Under Trump, the EPA has been headed by fossil fuel industry lobbyists and has ceased to function as an agency that protects the environment. All this could change with the November election.

While there are a lot of similarities between their overall goals, the difference in approach can be seen in their headline aims. Sanders’ Green New Deal top of the page goal is: “Reaching 100% renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030 and complete decarbonization of the economy by 2050 at latest.”

While Biden’s Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice goal is: “Ensure the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050.”

Before digging into some of the policy issues that might be more significant to the general reader, there are a couple that are of some significance to investors and issuers, and again, the two candidates’ politics define the distinctions.

Sanders vows to create a National Climate Risk Report. His plan is for the SEC and the EPA to develop an economy-wide survey of climate risks, by forcing corporations to audit and report their climate risks. The EPA will then use this information to “target the worst climate risks through economy-wide regulations to limit carbon pollution emissions under the Clean Air Act to achieve our carbon pollution reduction goals”.

In addition, Sanders will “pressure financial institutions, universities, insurance corporations, and large institutional investors” to divest from fossil fuels and transition to clean energy bonds. New financial rules will be established at the SEC and other regulatory agencies to “pressure hedge funds, the insurance industry, and other large investors” who are still invested in fossil fuels to either “divest or pay for clean energy investments through clean energy bonds”.

Biden’s plan alternative is a curt: “Requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains.”

Key points of Sanders’ climate plans

Sanders will ensure that the renewable energy grid and generation is in public ownership, using the Federal Power Marketing Administration, and will force the EPA to regulate all greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act. He will also initiate a decarbonisation of the transport sector, with massive funding for electric vehicles for both private transport, trucking and public transport, with a 65% increase in public transit by 2030. Shipping and aviation must also be decarbonised by 2050. Under Sanders, the US will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and will invest $200 billion in the Green Climate Fund “for the equitable transfer of renewable technologies, climate adaptation, and assistance in adopting sustainable energies”. Trade deals will also be renegotiated to include strong and binding climate standards, labour rights, and human rights.

As well as suing the fossil fuel companies and forcing them to repair their infrastructure to prevent leaks, spills and other disasters, Sanders will also massively raise taxes on “corporate polluters’ and investors’ fossil fuel income and wealth”, raise penalties on pollution from fossil fuel energy generation and require “remaining fossil fuel infrastructure owners to buy federal fossil fuel risk bonds to pay for disaster impacts at the local level”.

Key points of Biden’s climate plans

Biden’s climate plans spend much of their time explaining to readers that there is a climate crisis, how it was caused, and how it can be averted, while Sanders’ plan assumes that readers know all this. Biden’s approach is understandable, however, give the relative age of his supporters and the current lack of understanding or even acceptance of climate change in large parts of US society.

Using federal investment of $1.7 trillion over the next ten years and leveraging additional private sector and state and local investments to bring that total to more than $5 trillion, Biden will, among other initiatives, increase limits on methane emissions, expand use of and research into biofuels, use the Federal government procurement system to drive towards 100% clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.

Like Sanders, he will encourage the use of electric vehicles, target energy storage for development and the aviation sector, but he will also work on the development and deployment of carbon capture sequestration technology. Biden also pledges to end fossil fuel subsidies worldwide, including a global moratorium on offshore drilling in the Arctic, and to offer green debt relief, as well as targeting China’s fossil fuel use and its spread of fossil fuels beyond its borders through its Belt and Road Initiative.

What do the plans have in common?

Both also commit to climate justice for minorities and the underprivileged and to repairing the nation’s water infrastructure and other infrastructure projects, as well as funding disaster management so that the communities most affected, which are often the poorest and most disadvantaged, are protected and rebuilt. They also both pledge to ensure a proper transition for energy workers to sustainable employment, with massive funding, and to target funding to economic areas which formerly held the majority of fossil fuel jobs. Crucially, both will also end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. However, while Sanders will work to shut down the nuclear energy industry, Biden will investigate how it can contribute to decarbonisation.

Sanders and Biden also make great play of ensuring that all government agencies abide by the Clinton-era Executive Order 12898, which, according to the EPA, requires agencies to “identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations”. They will ensure that there is a safety net so decarbonisation is both affordable to and benefits low income and minority citizens, and particularly tribes and Native Americans.

Each also includes a substantial set of commitments on energy efficiency and clean energy in homes and buildings, as well as a raft of initiatives to encourage the development of clean technologies and comprehensive farming and forestry reforms to dramatically reduce GHG emissions from those industries.

Both also have comprehensive reform packages for labour, encouraging union membership and protecting workers’ rights, for immigration, for prison and criminal justice reform, and for banning corporate and lobbying contributions to political parties and candidates – thus removing the necessity for shareholders to try to persuade the companies they own to disclose how much I being spent on such activities.