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While better than Trump's climate denial, a review of the Biden climate plan reveals an over reliance on unproven carbon capture and far too limited investment in solar and wind. Biden positions the plan as part of rivalry with China instead of climate cooperation. Bob Pollin joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.
Hi, I'm Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast.
The 2019 U.N. annual emissions gap report states that, if all the countries that made commitments to
the Paris agreement fulfilled those promises completely, we are still headed for 2°C warming by 2050
and 3°C by the end of the century. I'll say it again. If the Paris objectives are fully met, we hit almost
unlivable conditions in 30 years, and a catastrophic tipping point in 80, maybe sooner, within the
lifetime of our kids. These assessments were based on all countries meeting their Paris commitments,
but that's not happening. President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris agreements and is undoing the
modest regulations the Obama administration enacted. What happens if we continue business as usual?
The IPCC, (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), says by the end of the century, warming hits
4.8°. The Independent reported in 2016 that the IPCC estimate may be low, quote, "Research by an
international team of experts who looked into how the Earth's climate has reacted over nearly 800,000
years warns this could be a major underestimate because they believe the climate is more sensitive to
greenhouse gases when it's warmer. The actual range could be between 4.78°C and 7.36°C, by 2100,
based on one set of calculations," end quote.
The IPCC says the world must avoid hitting 1.5° Warming because once one point five degrees is hit, it
might be impossible to prevent further warming. And even at that level, the consequences of extreme
weather are calamitous. When we assess Joe Biden's climate plan, it shouldn't just be in comparison to
Trump's, which is nothing. Under Trump, the worst-case scenario is almost guaranteed. At least with
Biden, there's a recognition of the problem and a real plan.
But does the Biden plan live up to the urgency and scale that science says is necessary to avoid climate
catastrophe? Because if it isn't, then while it looks and feels like significant progress, we still end up with
much, or most of the world being unlivable.
While there are many things to discuss in the Biden plan, including, I'm concerned about the attitude
towards China which we'll discuss later in our interview, but perhaps the biggest concern is it seems to
be very reliant on carbon capture technology, nuclear, and seems to downplay renewables; solar, wind,
and geothermal. And these are the concerns of our guest. And now joining us is Bob Pollin, co-founder
of the Perry Institute, that's the Political Economy Research Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is
the author of an upcoming book co-authored with Noam Chomsky titled "Climate Crisis and the Global
Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet."
Thanks for joining us, Bob.
Thanks very much for having me on, Paul.
So what's your overview to start with of the plan? What encourages you? Let's start with that, and then
let's get to what concerns you?
Well, the first thing is encouraging. I know it's a very low bar, but at least there is a plan, and it's pretty
serious in terms of the scale of the project. The scale of the project, if we just look at the overall amount
of money they are suggesting should be spent, is in line with what I think is the right scale. They're
looking at a budget over the next 10 years of about 500 billion dollars a year total, which is, again, pretty
much in line with my own research. And I've actually been doing work with some other progressive
economists like Jeff Sachs, and his number coming from different places is also in that range. So the big,
big, big number is decent, and the share of the 500 billion per year that would be coming from the
federal government, I also think is pretty reasonable; about 35% of the total, with the rest coming from
state and local governments and private investment.
But what does it mean by reasonable, that dollar number in the sense of, doesn't depend on what
they're going to do with those dollars?
Yes, of course it does. So I want to just first say that at least they're recognizing the magnitude of the
level of investment needed by saying it's in the range of five hundred billion a year, which is more or less
my own range. And I would also add favorably that this number is much greater than the spending
number that comes out of the European green deal, which has gotten a lot of publicity as a major
breakthrough that finally some government entities are taking climate change seriously.
And if you read the documents of the European Green Deal, the rhetoric is excellent, about how urgent
this is, the commitment. In fact, Christine Lagarde, the head of the European Central Bank, has already
also said this is her top priority on and on. But when you actually get down to the level of spending
they're talking about, they're talking about maybe 120 billion per year, 100 billion euros a year.
So, the big number from Biden is the best thing, in my opinion, in the program. The other part that's
good is that he does say very positive, favorable things about the jobs that are going to be created by
clean energy investments, being union jobs, being good-paying jobs, advancing opportunities for
underrepresented cohorts like women and non-whites, most of the jobs held in the energy sector are
for whites right now. And he has made a commitment, at least in the document, to just transition for
workers and communities in the fossil fuel-dependent sector now.
The Obama administration, obviously of which he was a part, did also make a commitment around just
transition, what they called their POWER+ Plan. But as was typical, it was really good in terms of what it
said was important and what they were concerned about, but the actual budgetary proposal was far
below what was necessary. So that's the big concern. I would say that we can say nice things like they
have in Europe, but if they're not willing to really move serious resources into advancing this agenda,
that is a massive problem.
Now, then, to your point, yes, five hundred billion a year, but what are we spending on? One of the
things that jumped out at me the most in reading, that I was surprised by, was the extent to which the
Biden plan gives prominence to carbon capture technology, which I'll explain a bit more in a second,
nuclear energy, and bio-energy, and downplays, as far as my reading, the two biggest sources that are
really available and affordable right now, which is solar and wind power. So carbon capture technology
is a technology that aims to remove emitted carbon from the atmosphere.
So in other words, you have a coal-based power plant or utility, and you can keep burning the coal. At
the smokestack or someplace else, we have this technology that literally captures the carbon and is able
to store it. So carbon capture technology has really been a research project for 30 years now. It has
never been developed to the point where it's technologically commercially viable. And then even if it
does work, what we're talking about is storing the carbon underground, forever, or else we're back at
the problem that we have with carbon being admitted into the atmosphere. So the problem with carbon
capture technology, even if it could be commercialized, and we don't know that it can be, but even if it
could be commercialized, we have the issue of leakage, so any problem with leakage is going to get us
back into raising emissions.
And if we did carbon capture technology on a large scale, not just in the United States, but worldwide, of
course you're going to have weak regulatory standards, and you're going to see leakages. So that to me,
was the biggest single problem.
The only thing I find to do with wind power in the Biden plan is to double offshore wind by 2030. But it
would seem to me, if you're serious about hitting these targets, and if you're not actually really
depending on carbon capture, and as you say, that means continuing to use fossil fuel, then you do a
heck of a lot more than just double wind by 2030. In a decade, if you put serious effort towards it, you
can have a lot more than doubling. So they really are not talking about phasing out fossil fuel, they're
talking about carbon capture.
That to me is the thing that jumps out. And so to double wind power is nothing. Wind power is maybe
2% of all energy right now, so that gets us to 4%. Solar power is like 0.2%. So we have to think about
increasing solar power, you know, tenfold or sevenfold or something like that. And we have to increase
wind power five or six-fold to have a serious chance of hitting our emission reduction targets.
And I would just say also, on the issue of technology and costs, as I said, with carbon capture, we do not
have commercial-scale carbon capture as yet, even though there have been efforts for 30 years. And
even though, of course, the fossil fuel industry has been seriously committed to carbon capture because
that's the way they can survive.
Now, what we do know is that solar has come down in price. In 2010, the average price of utility-scale
solar was about $0.36 And now it's about $0.10. So solar has fallen in price by over 70%. Onshore wind
has fallen by 25%. These are numbers coming out of the Trump Energy Department. These aren't
numbers coming out of Greenpeace, but I'm sure Greenpeace, (Greenpeace is a non-governmental
environmental organization), was happy to see them.
The average cost to generate a kilowatt of electricity from nuclear is twice that of solar and wind. So
why would we be developing carbon capture and nuclear? Nuclear, of course, has serious dangers in
terms of public safety, of radioactive waste, spent fuels, meltdowns. We know about the Fukushima
meltdown in 2011, and we have to recognize that if we build out nuclear to a very large extent, we are
going to put ourselves in more danger of more such meltdowns. Because Japan had a pretty good
regulatory structure, we have to assume that the rest of the world is not going to do a whole lot better
than Japan in terms of regulating nuclear power plants.
The specific recommendation in the Biden plan, I'm not exactly sure what it means. They want to create
small modular nuclear reactors at half the construction cost of today's reactors. Doesn't that just sound
like a whole lot of small reactors, which I would think even increases the danger?
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