Elizabeth Warren, after the initial assessment of her climate action plan was published by CleanTechnica — Warren’s Climate Plan: Solid, But Sophisticated & Hard To Sell To Voters — close to a month ago, announced a new component to the plan and an additional trillion in funding, inspired by elements of Jay Inslee’s gold-standard plan. This is especially important as recent polling shows that Warren is neck-and-neck with Biden in key states, so has a much higher likelihood of being the Democratic candidate in 2020.
“Today, I’m embracing that goal by committing to adopt and build on Governor Inslee’s ten-year action plan to achieve 100% clean energy for America by decarbonizing our electricity, our vehicles, and our buildings. And I’m challenging every other candidate for President to do the same.”
Now that CleanTechnica has assessed Biden’s (meh), Sanders’ (great on electricity, car-centric, and authoritarian), Harris’ (excellent and statesmanlike) and Yang’s plans (good on carbon fee, bad on energy) plans, it’s time to return to Warren’s to update the assessment with her new announcement.
Warren’s new commitments add a trillion, specific targets in some areas, and significant improvements on electrification, industry, and transportation. They improve her plan substantially. It’s still not as good as Harris’ in 2-3 dimensions, but now it’s a much more credible plan. It remains, however, underfunded, or at least the funding isn’t in the right places. It’s now a roughly $5 trillion plan, but there was no shift of the $2 trillion investment in research and development to deployment of existing technologies. That’s arguably a somewhat political choice.
Harris’ plan remains stronger and more statesmanlike overall, Biden’s transportation plan is probably better, and Yang’s commitment to an Independent and #NeverTrump carbon fee and dividend is much crisper. While Warren’s plan leans on executive powers, she’s not committing to massively extending them as Sanders is. This is an excellent improvement to her original plan and makes her competitive on climate.
Warren has made a couple of verbal statements that aren’t in her published plan. The first is that pricing carbon with a border adjustment is important, but unlike Harris and Yang, it’s not documented in her plan. The second is regarding nuclear, which is the very reasonable position that she’d let it die a natural death for the most part, with a 2035 termination which aligns with about 97% of plants being retired at end of life.
Warren, more so than some other candidates, has spread addressing climate change across different planks of her platform rather than having it as a single plank. This is a reasonable approach up to a point, as climate solutions and impacts touch almost every aspect of the United States (and the world), so inserting climate-related actions in most plans makes sense. However, it can make comparisons to more integrated and costed plans such as Yang’s, Biden’s, or Sanders’ difficult.
As a reminder, global warming has several large areas of causation. Electrical generation, transportation, land use, and industry all have greenhouse gas emissions. The US military is also seven times larger than the next seven largest military forces in the world combined, is estimated to be one of the single largest greenhouse gas sources in the world, and has not been required to quantify its emissions, but it has been pointing out the significant global security risks of climate change for over a decade.
While dealing with the causes is critical, dealing with adaptation to the impacts is now important as well due to our delays in addressing this problem, which has been clear since the 1970s. Finally, while accelerating drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere is of lower priority than stopping emitting greenhouse gases, any plan should address aspects of drawdown as well. These aspects of Warren’s plan need to be assessed to see if they are present and the approaches are reasonable.
Democratic Candidate Table Stakes
There are three things which virtually every Democratic candidate agrees with. The first is that they all accept the science of human-caused global warming and resulting climate impacts, and the need to act on this serious, global issue. The second is a return to the Paris Accord, which Obama entered the US into and Trump walked away from. The third is support for the Green New Deal, at least in principle, but implementation varies quite a bit. And the Paris Accord portion means that US military emissions would finally be reported, so that they could be tracked and reductions measured, a major step forward.
Warren has a plan for this, Accelerating the Transition to Clean Energy. One of her first statements points to an industrial plan, which we’ll cover in depth later.
“I’ve proposed a historic $2 trillion investment in researching, developing, and manufacturing clean energy technology here in America so that we can lead the global effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and beyond.”
(Note: all quoted text is from Warren’s campaign documents unless otherwise stated.)
But then there’s an interesting wrinkle, which is very Warren-esque. She rightly identifies that companies face two types of climate risks, the first being damage to their ability to execute due to the impacts of climate change and the second being actions which cause climate change and must inevitably transform or stop entirely. The fossil fuel industry is called out explicitly in that last one.
“My Climate Risk Disclosure plan addresses these problems by requiring companies to publicly disclose both of these types of climate-related risks.”
Yeah, this is an investment advisory component and Warren would have the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) put standards around reporting. Among other things, companies that were major contributors to global warming would have to quantify and value that impact in submissions. All of this is to fundamentally shift investment and the ability to garner capital by these firms. It’s fundamentally bringing the climate into Wall Street and the markets.
Many firms already do this, including many oil and gas firms. Many of their projections already assume a price on carbon, for example. But the disclosures are all over the map and whether they are accurate or merely greenwashing requires careful analysis of individual efforts. This policy would clarify that substantially.
This is a sophisticated, excellent, and hard-to-communicate plan. It’s wonky. The average voter doesn’t read SEC filings or invest millions in the stock market. It’s much less voter friendly as a proposal than many, which is probably its biggest weakness.
That’s not the only plan which addresses electrical generation, however. In addition to the manufacturing plan covered in the next section, My plan for public lands includes references as well.
“I will set a goal of providing 10% of our overall electricity generation from renewable sources offshore or on public lands.”
This is matched by the elimination of new fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
“I will sign an executive order that says no more drilling — a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases, including for drilling offshore and on public lands.”
The combination will mean that at a stroke, public lands will be focused on low-emission, low-pollution wind and sun exploitation instead of fossil fuel exploitation. That’s a strong pairing of policy positions that are definitely good for the climate all over the world, and for the quality of the environment on public lands.
That first pledge includes removing barriers to leasing for renewables firms and to sharing the income with the states and local communities. The combination is a strong one.
UPDATE: Subsequently to these plans, in early September Warren released her 100% Clean Energy for America plan. It was a big extension of several elements of her previous plan.
“By 2035, 100% renewable and zero-emission energy in electricity generation, with an interim target of 100% carbon-neutral power by 2030.”
That’s a much more aggressive target, with clear dates, and aligned with Harris and Sanders. She’s also clear that she has significant authority as President under the Clean Air Act to implement regulation immediately, should Congress not be on board. This falls short of Sanders’ emergency powers plan, but is more palatable. The approaches outlined are sensible as well.
First, she’s going to substantially strengthen the renewable portfolio standards that already exist for utilities to align with the 2030 and 2035 targets, along with interim goals and reporting. Second, she would regulate coal generation out of existence within a decade, something that Ontario to the north proved was entirely doable. These are clear and obvious approaches, and given that Republicans have claimed that Democratic candidates have a war on coal underway, leaning into that makes as much sense as not.
Then it gets, as Warren’s plans tend to, wonky.
“I’ll work with Congress to overhaul the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is tasked with regulating the U.S. electrical grid, replacing it instead with a Federal Renewable Energy Commission.”
Most voters have not clue that FERC exists or what it does, so while this makes complete sense to energy analysts like me, it’s going to go straight over the head of average voters.
Her original plan unlocked federal funding for clean energy acquisitions, but now she’s leaning into that more aggressively, requiring all federal agencies to switch to 100% renewable energy for domestic power purchases by the end of 2024. Once again, there is more clarity, more dates, and good aggression on the targets. This is a definite improvement over her original plan.
Her plan is now clearer on funding mechanisms for non-federal agencies through the transformation, a likely place of differentiation within candidates as their goals start to converge. In her case, she’ll be putting more grants and loans through the Department of Energy’s Loan Guarantee Program and the Rural Utilities Service. This is in lieu of tax credits, which while they shift financing for utility-scale purchases, don’t defray initial capital costs for smaller implementations. That should smooth the transition.
She’s now mentioning transmission as well, which is a key component. This is through regional coordination and prioritization of transmission lines from high-renewable resource areas long-distances and across state lines to get the clean electricity to major consumer areas. Like Sanders, she’s leaning into the existing DoE Power Marketing Administrations, but in an assistive role as opposed to Sanders’ nationalization of electrical generation.
As Warren split her clean energy transition across two chunks of her platform, I’ll follow with her industrial plank, My Green Manufacturing Plan for America. It’s a much more voter-centric plan. The words patriotism, jobs, American, and the like are all over it. She invokes the WWII mobilization of manufacturing to fight global fascism and Kennedy’s Space Race. Pulse-stirring stuff.
And the components of the plan mirror this. Her Green Apollo program would invest $400 billion in R&D for clean technologies and create a National Institutes of Clean Energy. Her Green Industrial Mobilization would provide $1.5 trillion for federal procurement of clean energy products at the federal level, but with a focus on promoting procurement of US clean energy products at all levels of government; bulk federal procurements would be tapped by state and municipal governments for lower-costs at those levels of government. Her Green Marshall Plan would be funded to the tune of $100 billion and promote American clean energy products and expertise globally, assisting other countries to advance without coal and gas. The plan also comes with a good slate of worker-protection clauses to ensure that people are paid fair wages and have access to collective bargaining.
A key premise of this plan is that all intellectual capital and manufacturing jobs would stay in the US and be owned by the US. The first part makes tremendous sense, but the second part is much more challenging.
The US remains a very strong manufacturer, but it’s heavily automated manufacturing and it’s only going to become more so. While this plan would increase knowledge and information workers in the United States, it won’t lead to a significant uptick in blue collar jobs because the products have to be globally competitive, and the way advanced economies compete with labor arbitrage economies is through automation. The ratio of labor to manufactured value has shifted, and now an order of two more magnitude of manufacturing has to be created in order to deliver the same number of jobs, and fewer of those jobs are available to basic skilled and semi-skill trades. Yang’s Freedom Dividend, for comparison, is a much more future-oriented approach to deal with this Catch-22, but has its own cultural-fit problem.
But that said, this is a salable plan to the people in the heartland who have seen the manufacturing economy hollowed out and want to get back to their well-paying shift work building the goods America and the world uses. A lot of voters will like this regardless of its basis in reality.
And the plan also addresses the reality that some jobs just aren’t coming back and in fact will go away faster. The fossil fuel industry jobs in oil, gas, and coal are yesterday’s jobs and the workers there will have to transition. There’s support in the plan for these workers to change their vocations, but this is something that the Democratic Party has been trying to assist these communities with for a couple of decades; people resist change and are highly susceptible to political messages. Warren’s plan is weak here from a voting perspective even as it’s strong from a reality perspective for assisting these voters, but it’s a calculated risk.
All of this is somewhat the equivalent of Trump’s promise to bring coal worker jobs back, frankly. It will appeal to a lot of the working class, if it’s communicated to them well, but won’t result in a lot of jobs for them unless manufacturing increases an extraordinary amount.
The plan also tackles the $5 billion program for foreign arms sales and promotion programs for the US fossil fuel sector, if not the billions to tens of billions in US subsidies to the fossil fuel sector annually.
UPDATE: Warren’s new plan adds to this area as well.
“By 2028, 100% zero-carbon pollution for all new commercial and residential buildings;”
The building industry is a large source of carbon emissions, both with the power consumed in heating, cooling, lighting, and other draws, but also with embodied carbon in concrete specifically. Warren’s new plan isn’t silent on building materials, calling out embodied carbon in the buildings section. Warren now commits to a zero-carbon building standard — not universally applied immediately, one assumes — by 2023, and links federal grants and other funding to zero-carbon status.
Warren will also encourage private capital investments through various named but poorly specified levers. One can imagine how this will work, but more clarity and commitment should be demanded by the election itself. In terms of refurbishing existing buildings for energy efficiency, something useful to balance increased electrical demand from overall societal electrification, Warren calls out multiple levers and a 4% per year goal for refurbishment, a 25-year program that’s about right.
Once again, something Warren was silent on now has aggressive dates associated with it, which is another substantial improvement.
UPDATE: This section has been so substantially improved by her new release that it’s only worth saying that she mostly ignored it before, and to focus on the new plan.
“By 2030, 100% zero emissions for all new light-duty passenger vehicles, medium-duty trucks, and all buses;”
That’s an excellent and aggressive target, but one that’s eminently achievable given the state of technology and where the major manufacturers are today. It certainly gives notice to major manufacturers that aren’t named Tesla that they have to transform even more rapidly than had been expected. However, this is in line with what China is already on track to achieve and all major manufacturers are working with Chinese partners to build fully electric vehicles for that market.
And in another major improvement, Warren has clear paths to delivering on this. First off are tight and annually increasing fuel efficiency standards through 2030, along with a low-carbon fuels standard. The first is second than the better, as the second leaves wiggle room for manufacturers to avoid electrification and promoting biofuels and synthetic fuels which are much higher carbon than fully electric drive trains.
The second is to help domestic manufacturers transform to electrification and to build a renewable charging network that’s presumably somewhat analogous to what Tesla has already done, but for manufacturers without Tesla’s strategic foresight.
Third, Warren will increase demand for electric vehicles with tax rebates and a Clean Cars for Clunkers program, similar to Sanders’ but not as absurdly overfunded.
Warren does mention transportation in passing in her original Green Manufacturing Plan:
“… we should prioritize research that can be commercialized to help close the gap in hard-to-decarbonize sectors — such as aviation and shipping”
And Warren’s new plan is better than before for non-road transportation, but still not that aggressive. Warren would address “maritime, rail, and aviation, and expand and improve public transit across our country.” But outside of an aviation goal of not exceeding 2020 emissions, this is a blank space for goals, action plans, and dates. Unlike other candidates, she’s not leaning into the high-speed rail aspect of the Green New Deal, something Biden is strongest on with Sanders following. Warren is silent on the subject. Given her lack of rigor on decarbonization short-hop aviation, the other alternative, this means she’s waffling on medium-haul, in-continent, high-density transportation options.
Warren’s investment filing disclosure would, in theory, impact this sector if carbon were priced. But Warren’s published plans don’t say a thing about a tax (or fee, in Yang parlance) on carbon. An increasing price on carbon emissions would lead directly to SEC-mandated prospectuses that clearly laid out the implications for future revenue and profits, and hence market capitalization and investment.
However, Warren, as with many of the other candidates, committed to a carbon tax at the CNN town hall. Expect more on this front soon enough.
All in all, Warren’s plan more ignores transportation than not.
Warren has not one but two land-use plans. The first is targeted at farmers, and the second is targeted at public lands.
“My plan will make it economically feasible for farmers to be part of the climate change solution by increasing CSP’s payments for sustainable farming practices from around $1 billion today to $15 billion annually — and expanding the types of practices eligible for compensation — so that every farmer who wants to use their land to fight climate change can do so.”
This is a reasonable approach, leveraging an existing pathway. It pales in comparison to Yang’s $285 billion commitment, which is much more in line with the scale of the challenge, if lacking in detail. However, Warren’s approach is, as always, more structurally wonky, but perhaps in this case more voter friendly.
This plan, like her manufacturing plan, has a context of returning decent-paying work to Americans. Her approach to this is strong supply management in agriculture — basically collective bargaining for farmers — allowing them to ensure that they can sell their products for more money than it takes to produce them. Ensuring a stronger annual profit reduces the incentives to cut corners for short-term gain, something that the agricultural industry is just as subject to as other industries.
Beyond that, there is the public lands policy. As noted already, it prevents new oil and gas exploitation on these lands and prioritizes much lower impact wind and solar electrical generation.
But that’s not all from a climate perspective. Warren’s approach would also re-protect all of the 2 million acres — an area 2/3 the size of Connecticut — that Trump has removed from protection in his Administration. More teeth and money would be put into protecting public lands and for land and water conservation efforts. That has direct and long-term climate benefits, but mostly from not turning nature into paved plazas.
Warren has already tabled legislation, the Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act, to address the military’s role in global warming and its ability to deal with its impacts. And the military is a different beast than other contributors to global warming. It has to be ready to be anywhere in the world on short notice, operate in zones with heavily disrupted infrastructure, and have major ships operate independently for extended periods of time. Powering this mandate with renewable and biofuel energy is impossible in the near term, and extremely difficult in the longer term.
But the military has a steady state set of operations that can be addressed. The sharp end of the spear is hard to decarbonize, but it’s a huge logistical machine, and much of the logistics can be decarbonized. And so, the first target of Warren’s plan is that:
“… the Pentagon should achieve net zero carbon emissions for all its non-combat bases and infrastructure by 2030.”
Base adaptation funding would be provided. Contractors that weren’t zero emissions would pay 1% of contracts that they receive for the business, and that money would go to climate adaptation resiliency. Funding would go to research for advanced energy storage and microgrid approaches so that forward bases could be set up and run without nearly as much diesel generation.
Warren’s climate plan is wonky, somewhat hard to sell, but solid
Warren’s plan is far from having the highest price tag. The numbers only add up to $4 trillion, 20% under Yang’s already low-ball plan. But they have the merit of working in the spheres that are under federal mandate, putting the money dominantly into existing processes and programs that have proven track records, and changing structural misalignments that create climate problems.
Some of it can be sold to the American working class easily, specifically the manufacturing jobs and the farm profit stabilization, even if the approach to gaining those benefits won’t necessarily sit well with fiscal conservatives. Others are harder to explain to most voters, such as her SEC disclosure policy.
And others, something shared with most of the Democratic candidates, are just going to be a problem for major stakeholders such as Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry. On those files, the stakeholders are going to be choosing among evils, less than rooting for the nominee or funding them. The military will prefer Warren to some other candidates, while Wall Street will likely favor others.
Is it the best plan? At the end of the series, I’m writing on the four frontrunners’ plans (plus Yang’s). I’m sure I’ll have an opinion.
Note: I’ve reached out to the Warren campaign for comments on my assessment. Should they respond, the article will be updated.
- Text – H.Res.109 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.
- A New Farm Economy
- Accelerating the Transition to Clean Energy
- My Green Manufacturing Plan for America
- Our military can help lead the fight in combating climate change
- My plan for public lands
- 100% Clean Energy for America
- Yang Would Spend $3 Trillion On Residential Solar, But The Same Money Could Decarbonize The Grid Entirely
- Biden’s Climate Plan Is Designed To Appeal To Independents Who Don’t Think Climate Change Is Serious
- Kamala Harris Climate Plan Is Statesmanlike & Strong On Everything Except Military
- Bernie Sanders’ Climate Plan: Excellent On Electrification, But Concerningly Authoritarian & Populist – #Election2020
- How would you summarize Andrew Yang’s ideas in the CNN climate town hall?
- Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend Is Only A Step Toward Elon Musk’s Basic Income Vision
- US Subsidizes Fossil Fuels To The Tune Of $4.6, $27.4, Or $649 Billion Annually, Depending On Source