Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, laid out a new proposal Tuesday to transition the nation’s electricity grid off gas and coal by 2035 and spend $2 trillion over four years creating millions of jobs deploying renewable energy and upgrading old buildings.
The plan fell short of the sweeping climate visions on which the former vice president’s erstwhile primary opponents campaigned, leaving the door open to a continued expansion of fossil fuel production. But the new campaign pledge ― the second plank of his so-called Build Back Better agenda ― marked a significant shift in that direction as Biden seeks to unite his party and offered a stark contrast with President Donald Trump, whom he hopes to unseat in November.
The proposal comes less than a week after the Biden campaign released the 110-page recommendations of a task force of officials from the camps of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the former vice president’s second-place rival for the nomination. The new campaign plank is largely in line with the advice from the committee co-chaired by former Secretary of State John Kerry and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The task force memo called for installing 500 million solar panels and 60,000 American-made wind turbines over the next five years. The new Biden plan promises the deployment of “millions of solar panels” and “tens of thousands of wind turbines” as part of a shift to completely carbon-free electricity in just 15 years. The United States generated close to 63% of its electricity from fossil fuels last year, including 38% from natural gas and nearly 24% from coal, according to Energy Information Agency data. Nuclear provided nearly 20% of the country’s power, while wind made up over 7% and solar fell just shy of 2%.
Unlike Sanders’ proposal, which called for the phaseout of nuclear plants, senior Biden campaign officials said the reactors deemed safe would be kept online along with hydropower stations held to the same standard. Biden also vowed to invest in researching new, smaller reactors as part of the proposal he campaigned on last year.
The new Biden plan calls for retrofitting 4 million commercial buildings and 2 million private homes with energy-saving upgrades over the next four years. The targets, the plan projected, would create at least 1 million jobs and put the United States on track to halve emissions from buildings ― currently the fourth-largest source of carbon dioxide pollution, with 12% of the country’s output ― by 2035. The changes would also spur construction of 1.5 million new homes and public housing units, the campaign said, and establish the standards to zero out all emissions from new housing by 2030.
Biden pledged to make large-scale investments in rail transport and replace all of the country’s 500,000 school buses with American-built electric alternatives by 2030. Likewise, he vowed to expand access to electric buses in all U.S. cities with 100,000 residents or more, buy roughly 3 million new electric vehicles for the federal government, and build a massive charging network across the country.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise number of jobs the proposal would create. But the campaign pegged the number in the millions, and said it would set rules that all federal contractors must pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour, provide paid leave and allow employees to form unions.
The plan also lays out targets and new federal offices aimed at reducing the ways in which pollution disproportionately sickens and kills racial minorities in the U.S. The campaign said 40% of the $2 trillion plan would go to so-called frontline communities, mostly Black, brown and poor neighborhoods where companies have historically sited heavily polluting plants to take advantage of the residents’ lack of political power to fight back. The proposal calls for new federal enforcement and monitoring in those communities, the establishment of an environmental and climate justice division at the Department of Justice and the creation of a Department of Health and Human Services office dedicated to health equity.
Those pitches in particular offer a harsh juxtaposition to the Trump administration, which this week plans to finalize changes to the National Environmental Policy Act that would limit communities’ input on new pipeline and highway projects. The country’s bedrock anti-pollution law has offered an effective bulwark against Trump’s push to expand fossil fuel infrastructure over the past few years.
The administration made axing climate regulations a cornerstone of its agenda from the moment Trump took office, and has directed millions in federal funding to debt-smothered oil and gas companies even as average Americans face a historic eviction crisis amid the pandemic-induced economic depression.
On the call Tuesday morning, the Biden campaign reiterated its pledge to ban new fracking on federal lands. It’s unclear whether a Biden presidency would restore or put new restrictions on federal support for existing drilling. Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ― three primary opponents from whose highly praised climate plans the Biden campaign clearly borrowed ― all vowed to end the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing. Top Democrats, however, have long feared that such a pledge would cede the gas-producing state of Pennsylvania to Trump, who won it in 2016.
“You can’t address the risks of climate change without America’s natural gas and oil industry,” Mike Sommers, the president of industry lobbyist the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement. “This plan would require a massive amount of infrastructure buildout, a goal we all share. Unfortunately, it comes at a time when we’ve seen opposition to energy projects of all kinds with activist groups obstructing development every step of the way.”
The Republican Party’s rapid-response team accused Biden of embracing “radical Green New Deal polices” in a show that “he’s willing to sacrifice blue collar jobs to achieve the far left’s wish list.”
But that argument may be a difficult sell as the United States continues to suffer a worse coronavirus outbreak than almost any other rich country, in part because of the president’s plan to revive the economy hinged on reopening businesses rather than providing the kind of direct government support to maintain employment that counterparts in Europe and the United Kingdom offered.
Climate, moreover, is Trump’s weakest point. He spent years gutting regulations and public health safeguards while openly mocking scientists and promoting debunked theories about warming. Wildfires and hurricanes, meanwhile, took record tolls of Americans. His bungled response to Hurricane María’s devastating effect on Puerto Rico, the largest remaining U.S. colonial possession, is now widely seen as an omen for how his administration would handle the pandemic.
Americans overwhelmingly understand that climate change is a threat. Two-thirds of Americans said the federal government is doing too little to address the issue in a Pew Research Center poll released last month.
In a survey by the liberal think tank Data for Progress earlier this month, 56% of registered voters said they would be more likely to cast ballots for a president who pledges to achieve 100% clean energy by 2035 and create millions of jobs in the process. That included 76% of Democrats, 42% of Republicans and 42% of independents. The polling also showed that Biden’s proposals are popular in battleground states such as Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“This is the single most comprehensive and ambitious climate plan ever advanced by a major presidential nominee,” said Sam Ricketts, a former Inslee staffer and co-founder of the Democratic climate policy group Evergreen Action. “The next president must act with urgency to defeat the climate crisis and to rebuild our economy, and this plan lays out a path towards the climate mobilization that America needs to meet this moment.”