The Green Space | Breaking down Biden’s climate policies

The Green Space is a biweekly blog about all things environmental — whether we’re talking a mason-jar compost heap or the entire world.

By Sarah Stager, Contributing Editor

Joe Biden’s climate policy outline is really, really long, and I read all of it so that you don’t have to — though you probably should anyway. Here are some of my main takeaways.

Biden’s overarching goal is to build a 100% clean energy economy and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. It’s not entirely clear to me what a “100% clean energy economy” would look like, since the term clean energy economy usually refers to the sectors of the economy that are engaged in producing low-carbon energy technologies.

Those sectors encompass any company focused mainly on clean energy production or generation, water conservation, sewage treatment, recycling, greenhouse gas reduction and so on. Though companies in other sectors may and should incorporate some of these concerns into their own business models, such environmental proceedings are not their main money-maker.

It’s possible, and likely, that this first confusing bit of rhetoric is just another way of phrasing the second goal — net-zero emissions. Net-zero emissions simply means that we will take as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we are putting in. Of course, in order to reach this goal, it’s of the utmost importance that we first lower emissions as much as possible. Then, we can use techniques such as carbon capture, use and storage, a process better known by the initialism CCUS, to pull the remaining carbon out of the atmosphere. Net-zero emissions is a great place to start, but once we achieve that, we must continue driving toward negative emissions in order to undo the damage already done.

No plan is perfect, and Biden may be making a mistake by aiming for net-zero emissions. A 2019 study, based on a survey of 80 experts from nine countries, found that combining emission reduction and negative emission techniques into one goal decreased focus on reducing emissions. The proposed use of NETs, which are not guaranteed to advance as quickly as projected, can serve as an excuse to pull back on emission reduction and remain dependent on fossil fuels. Rather, governments should set up separate goals relating to each so that any overly optimistic projections for the impact of NETs don’t result in an easing of emission reduction policy.

Despite this small hiccup, and the whole fracking kerfuffle, I found most of Biden’s plan to be quite comprehensive and reassuring. Though the main focus is, as it should be, on decreasing atmospheric carbon, Biden emphasizes that we can do so while also providing new jobs and addressing issues of environmental justice.

An ambitious infrastructure overhaul stands at the center of his plan, combining much-needed repairs with increased efficiency and resiliency to build a system that can both reduce emissions while standing up to climate-related disasters.

Included in the infrastructure plan is the part of Biden’s plan that I find the most exciting — trains! After riding the crusty old Amtrak to and from the University, and mooning over Japan’s sleek, speedy and ridiculously convenient bullet trains, I’m glad to see that someone in power shares my concern for the dismal state of America’s trains.

High-speed trains are the future of intercity travel, both in terms of energy efficiency and in terms of pure convenience. Biden plans not only to build a high-speed rail system from coast to coast, but also pursue projects to cut down on freight train shipping times and emissions.

All of these infrastructure projects will create jobs, a point that Biden has hit on over and over to counter President Donald Trump’s claim that more environmental regulations will lead to job loss. Plus, many countries are beginning to pivot toward more environmentally friendly policies, opening up a vast new export market for whichever nation chooses to invest in the development of green technology. You know what that means? A whole lot of jobs.

This is just the prediction of a mere college student who has no expertise in economics, but I see green technology as one of the determinants of future global influence, which is likely why Xi Jinping, the leader of China, has been committing to a slew of new economic goals and investments. Either we move forward along with China or stay entrenched in the past.

Keeping in mind China’s increasingly green policy and the United States’ marked avoidance of any such thing during the past four years, it is a little comical to me that Biden employs rhetoric about holding other nations accountable and stopping China specifically from funding “dirty fossil fuel energy projects.”

Despite this slightly inflammatory language, I appreciate the sentiment of working with China to create a greener Belt and Road Initiative — and offer alternative, environmentally friendly investment options for developing countries — and agreeing to a mutual carbon mitigation policy. China is one of the largest global carbon producers, and we must play nicely with China if we want to mitigate global warming. It is, after all, global.

Biden would also reenter the Paris Climate Accord, which is just a no-brainer. The Accord remains the most monumental climate agreement to date, with all 197 countries in the world signing on, and 190 — with the United States included, since Trump’s withdrawal does not take effect until after the election — ratifying the agreement, essentially putting it into effect.

The Accord aims to limit global temperature rise to at most two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels in this century, while attempting to pursue policies that would put global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius instead. Though the United States may no longer retain its position as a global superpower, the nation remains influential on the global stage, and our government’s strong commitment to addressing environmental issues both domestically and globally will go a long way in pressuring other nations to do the same — though many are already way ahead of us.

Ultimately, whether you like Biden’s environmental plan or not, if you care for the environment, you don’t have much choice. It’s either Biden’s plan or a continued rollback of important environmental protections in favor of the fossil fuel industry. I don’t know about you, but I’m all in for the trains.

Sarah writes primarily about trees, climate change and walking. You can reach her at [email protected].