Robert Pollin: Biden Not Phasing Out Fossil Fuel, Relies on Carbon Capture
Yves here. Biden has managed to steer clear of saying much about his plans, and reports from Democratic party foot soldiers state that that is no accident. Frankly, I can’t believe he’s flogging capture, but it appears he thinks he can satisfy climate change activists without ruffling any carbon producers or users. Robert Pollin gives a detailed critique of Biden’s program in his talk with Paul Jay.
I hate to sound negative about efforts to Do Something about accelerating global warming, but I had a considerable skepticism about the Green New Deal approach. It envisions a lot of new infrastructure building….which means front-loaded activity that required an even higher level of use of our current carbon-intenvise infrastructure. I don’t hear anywhere near enough emphasis on radical conservation, because no one seems willing to say that that will result in less output and consumption.
Also please forgive any funky formatting. The transcript had a lot of extra line returns and I stripped a ton out but I suspect some remain.
By Paul Jay. Originally published at TheAnalysis.news
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 PERI 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?
Absolutely you’re right, because at least if you have centralized big reactors, then you know how to
protect them. If you spread out the reactors all over the place, then yes, you’re increasing the difficulty of seriously regulating.
And again, nuclear power has been around for, what, 15 years. And the costs, according to the Energy
Department, the Trump administration’s Energy Department, the cost of nuclear to generate a unit kilowatt of electricity are roughly double that of solar, wind, and geothermal. So of course, we can improve those technologies, especially around storage, but why wouldn’t we go with these technologies
that are safe, that work perfectly fine right now, as opposed to emphasizing carbon capture and nuclear? Well, we know the answer. The answer for carbon capture is that’s the way that the fossil fuel industry is going to survive. So that’s what’s going on there.
I think we should highlight that there is another, I guess it’s a form of carbon capture, which is mentioned in the plan, but not highlighted and emphasized to the extent I would think it should be, and that’s planting trees and restorative agriculture. They mention it, but it’s just part of a grocery list of things. And you take this massive investment of 500 billion a year and the question is, what are they going to spend it on? You would spend it on retrofitting buildings, which they do talk about, which obviously needs to be done. But then it’s about investing in new sustainable energy sources, wind and solar primarily. And then it is all about restorative agriculture and lots of trees, because if you want to suck carbon out of the air, you’ve got to suck it out of the atmosphere, not keep fossil fuel going.
Yeah, reforestation and organic agriculture, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, as you cited, IPCC, it’s reasonable to think that through investments and reforestation and
organic agriculture, we can reduce emissions in the range of 20% of where we have to be. So it is a
major part of the solution, 20% is a big part of the solution, but the other 80% has to come from raising efficiency standards and transitioning to renewables.
If we’re going to focus on carbon capture, which, as I said, is an unproven technology despite decades of efforts, and is essentially a way through which to keep the fossil fuel industry going, and it’s a way through which you maintain the extreme danger that would come through leakages of this captured
carbon, you are really going off track and you’re not investing the way that we need to invest. The way we need to invest is to massively expand efficiency, massively expand solar, wind, geothermal,
and invest in reforestation and organic agriculture.
I’ll just quote again from when you go down the list of the recommendations, this issue of decarbonization, carbon capture is at the heart of this whole plan. They talk about decarbonizing
industrial heat needed to make steel, concrete, and chemicals, re-imagining carbon-neutral construction materials. I don’t know what time frame they think that’s going to take place. And then they have capturing carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust, followed by sequestering it deep underground, or using it to make alternative products.
And again, there’s no such technology that’s actually effective right now, maybe there will be in the
future, but there’s some rhetoric at the beginning of the plan that gives you the impression that they understand the urgency of all this.
When you get into this issue of carbon capture and these other issues we’re talking about, the time frame just doesn’t seem to have any sense of urgency, which goes back to what you said early on. I’m
not sure if you said this to me while we were talking online or offline, but they still seem to think the Paris agreement timeline means something.
Yeah, they do cite the Paris agreement, and they say that under Biden, we’re going to rejoin Paris, which again, relative to Trump is an improvement since Trump has already pulled the U.S. out of the Paris agreement. But as you said, and I think you told the story very well, I mean, the shocking news that is almost never discussed is if everybody follows the Paris agreement, which they’re not doing, especially the US, if everybody follows it, there’s no chance for us hitting any emission targets.
I mean, this is recognized by the International Energy Agency, which is the largest body doing energy modeling other than the US Energy Department. If you look at their own model that incorporates all the countries doing everything they say they’re going to do under the Paris agreement, in 20 years, we reduce emissions, well, we actually increase emissions absolutely from about 33 billion tons to about 37 billion tons, so emissions would be going up.
They only go down modestly relative to doing almost nothing. So the Paris agreement is extremely flimsy. It’s not the foundation for accomplishing anything. At the same time, we do have the technologies. This is not a massive technological challenge. We have the solar technology, we have the wind technology, we have the efficiency technology, and we know how to plant trees and do organic
agriculture. Of course, we can improve them. But the main thing is to move these technologies to scale.
And when I talk about the 500 or so billion dollars a year, that’s really the thrust of the agenda hat I think is necessary.
Now, there was a recognition, that’s why there was a Paris agreement, but this had to be part of a global agreement. I mean, even if the United States hit every target imaginable, which is unlikely if the rest of the world isn’t doing the same, then it’s not going to mean that much.
So when you come down to it, the two biggest economies in the world, or maybe three, if you take the E.U. as one economy, which it kind of is, but still, the relationship between the United States and China, and some kind of agreement on climate, is going to be critical in this game going on for years. You have the anti-climate change people, not only are they in denial of the science, but one of their arguments always is, “well, it’s just going to make us uncompetitive with China, if China doesn’t do it, why should we,” and you get this childish game that goes on.
But what’s been happening in terms of the U.S. China relationship is, not only has Trump inflamed and intensified the rivalry, but Biden’s coming in with similar rhetoric. In fact, he’s even trying to be more “militant”, quote-unquote, about China than Trump.
And one of the things that jumped out at me in this plan was the extent of several paragraphs of an attack on China. Here’s one quote from the agreement, it goes, “Biden will stop China from subsidizing coal exports and outsourcing carbon pollution. China is far and away the largest emitter of carbon in the world, and through its massive belt and road initiative, Beijing is also annually financing billions of dollars of dirty fossil fuel energy projects across Asia and beyond. Biden will rally a united front of nations to hold China accountable to high environmental standards in its belt and road initiative infrastructure projects so that China can’t outsource pollution to other countries…”, and then further down Biden calls for the United States and its allies offering alternative financing to the countries that are buying into the Belt and Road initiative so that they don’t have to be part of this climate villain in China’s plan. What do you make of this? You know, China is the villain of the piece here.
It’s true. China is now the largest emitter of emissions and the US is second in absolute terms. In per capita terms, in other words, how much the average person is contributing to emissions, emissions in China are about 1/3 that of the United States. So that to portray China as the big villain in the whole story ignores the fact that on average, people in the United States are emitting 3 times the amount of China.
Moreover, of course, we know that in terms of income distribution, the people in the top 1% of the total global income distribution are emitting about 170 times more emissions than the lowest 10%. So, China is not the big villain. China could do a lot better, there’s no question about it, and they must, but everybody must. But to portray China as being the main cause of the problem is grossly inaccurate for today’s world, but is even more so if we look at the historical pattern as to how our atmosphere got loaded up with greenhouse gases in the first place.
If we look at the entire era of industrial development, then about 80% of all emissions up through the year 1980 are really due to the United States, Europe, and Japan, not China, not India, none of the developing economies. So it’s not their fault, and to portray it that way is obviously going to create a huge distraction. And it is unfair, it’s unjustified. On top of that, when when I told you that the costs of solar have come down by over 70% in just the last seven years, the single most important reason for that is because China is producing solar panels, and they are effective solar panels and they’re producing them cheaply.
Now, sure, the United States should get in on it. We should have an industrial policy that will enable us to compete with China in doing something good, like producing solar energy at low cost that everybody can afford and that can be easily installed anyplace in the United States and China everywhere in the world. So let’s let China and the United States compete over that and drive down the price of solar, and not worry about this rhetoric, which is obviously just intended to, again, portray China as being the chief villain in the story, which they’re not.
Now, China is expanding its coal production, which is something, if they understand climate science, and they seem to, why are they? Don’t they have alternatives to the expansion of coal?
So China has been operating on two tracks for some time now, which is they want to be ahead of everybody and the biggest manufacturer of clean energy technology, and they’re pretty much getting there, and they keep building coal plants because right now it’s still the case that coal plants are very cheap, easy, the technology is well known, and they don’t want to slow down development to wait for having to develop solar technology, wind technology at scale. They’re doing both things at the same time.
So, in fact, the largest proportion of all the solar panels that are being built in China are really being built for the global market. So that is a massive deficiency with China. So if we’re going to criticize China, let’s criticize them for that.
And let’s tell China that, you, China, and we, the United States, are going to compete to deliver affordable, renewable energy, clean energy to developing countries, to sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where 50% of the rural population has no access to electricity, as of right now. So let’s deliver 100% clean energy to sub-Saharan Africa so that, by the way, then they don’t have to keep burning wood as an energy source, which is a very dirty source of energy.
What I didn’t see in the plan, and maybe I missed it because I haven’t read every word of the Biden plan, but is a call for a new global treaty on climate, essentially like the Paris, but with actual, enforceable, legally enforceable, binding commitments, and more importantly, targets that are scientifically justified.
And as we’ve discussed a couple of times already, Paris didn’t do it. So what would do it? I mean, my understanding is what science is saying is you can’t hit 1.5, and we have less than a decade to prevent that from happening, assuming we actually can, because some people think it’s even too late to prevent it. But one way or the other, the urgency is 1.5, not this 2° in 2050 business of Paris. That doesn’t happen without a U.S.-China agreement. That doesn’t happen without a global agreement.
And there’s no way you get to a global agreement with this kind of rhetoric which is intensifying against China. China’s not changing its strategy on coal because the US threatens it. If it does it, it does it as part of a collaborative global agreement.
Yeah, well, I think the only way that we hit anything like the IPCC’s emission reduction targets, which are 45% emissions, with a global emission reduction of CO2, carbon dioxide, emissions by 2030, and net- zero by 2050. OK, so if we’re going to focus on those, basically we have to assume that, yes, the US and China and Europe are going to have to finance a whole lot of this because not just China, if we just focus on China, we’re missing another big part of the story, which is that the developing world, which wants to grow, if we, for example, assume that India is going to grow at even half the rate they’ve been growing at for the last 20 years.
And if we don’t focus on what India is doing, then India alone, India, Indonesia, Mexico, they will bust the carbon budget by themselves, even if China and the US stabilize. Because China and the US, add them up they are 42% of emissions, global emissions, China, the US, and Europe are 55% of the emissions. So, we already have 45% of emissions outside the US, China, and Europe. So what we have to do is get the high-income countries, Europe, the United States, to finance clean energy investments in the developing world.
And that really has to be central. China has to be committed to it, but again, not just China, China, the United States, and Europe. And the way that you mentioned, thank you, the book that Noam Chomsky
and I have coming out next month. We talk about a financing program, and we do talk about eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies, and that’s good, that’ll get us some of the way, that’ll get us about half the way.
The only problem with that is a lot of the fossil fuel subsidies are really subsidies for poor people to get cheap energy. So if you’re going to take away the fossil fuel subsidies, you have to give people direct subsidies, income subsidies so that they can survive. That’s not a huge pot of money that’s just there, so we have to do some other things. We have to take money out of military budgets. I think we should have a carbon tax, and generate revenue and discourage the fossil fuel consumption there. And then, in addition, we do need to use the powers of the central bank, the Fed, and the European Central Bank. We’ve seen just in the last six months the Federal Reserve in a crisis is coming up with, you know, four trillion dollars at the drop of a hat. So they can easily finance a significant part, not just of the US clean energy project, but a global clean energy project.
Yeah, I just saw a quote from a guy who’s, I forget his name, he’s a senior fellow at the Peterson
Institute. And the Peterson Institute’s been the home of Austerity Hawks, and “they’ll reduce the debt” and all this. And he’s saying, he doesn’t see where the end in sight is about how much debt there can be right now. And yet I listen to Bloomberg Radio and you hear all kinds of Wall Street types saying, “yeah, even more subsidies are fine, we don’t have to worry about the debt.” You know, it’s remarkable to hear after being clobbered by these people for so long with this rhetoric about being afraid.
So does this pandemic moment make it more difficult, or does it even make it easier to have a far more
ambitious plan than what Biden’s talking about?
Well, certainly the pandemic has opened up the discussion about where do we go next, now that we’re in a depression, how do we get out of it? I, myself, am working with state-level groups, obviously not the federal government, but I’m doing studies now in nine different states on a program that incorporates a short term recovery, issues around public health, but then moving us onto a sustainable path that is focused around a clean energy transition. So at least, there seems to be significant interest in it. I’m even doing it in four Appalachian states, including West Virginia. So people want to see some serious alternative. I’m writing these nine state studies right now, in fact, the one from Maine is coming out tomorrow, and if I were to say, “oh, let’s wait until we get carbon capture technology really, really up to speed,” that’s no plan at all. I mean, the plans I’m talking about are to start investing in solar with existing technologies. Start investing in energy efficiency with existing technologies such as buses, public transportation, such as retrofitting buildings, let’s move that, and that is a stimulus program as well as being a, Save the Planet program.
Thanks very much for joining us Bob.
And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast. And if you have any questions for Bob, write
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