Biden bets on net zero
“Science tells us we have nine years before the damage is irreversible,” Joe Biden declared last week, echoing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) claim 18 months ago that the world would end in 12 years unless climate change was addressed. Pledging “drastic action,” the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee says he’ll spend $1.7 trillion so that the United States can cut net greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by 2050.
Biden’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s doomsday remarks both refer to the 2018 special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the impact of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That report can now be seen as the most successful bait-and-switch of the 21st century.
In 2015, many national governments, including the United States under the Obama administration, signed on to the Paris Agreement and its aim of “pursuing efforts” to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5°C and to reach “net zero” – a balance between greenhouse-gas emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere – sometime in the second half of the century. Three years later, the IPCC produced its 2018 report, bringing forward the net-zero deadline to 2050. At the same time, it declared that greenhouse-gas emissions must be cut by 40 percent by 2030, thereby setting in motion the doomsday timetable touted by climate alarmists.
The science in the report is pretty crude. In essence, the IPCC concluded that the climate impacts of limiting global warming to a 2°C rise are greater than a 1.5°C rise. That’s hardly rocket science, or even climate science. Far more important is what the IPCC did and didn’t do. It didn’t look at the costs of working toward net zero and weigh them against the putative climate benefits. In fact, it barely looked at the costs of net zero at all.
The few estimates that the IPCC does provide should give any but the most fanatical climate advocate pause. A carbon tax instituted to meet the 1.5°C limit would have to be between 10 and 20 times higher than for a 2°C limit and require a tax of up to $6,050 per metric ton. This compares to the $92 for the undiscounted value of the Social Cost of Carbon estimated by the Obama administration. The Social Cost of Carbon aims to identify the net damage caused by each additional ton of carbon dioxide. It also equates to the benefit of reducing emissions by the same amount.
Thus a $6,050 carbon tax to meet Biden’s net-zero goal would be set at a level more than 60 times the hypothetical climate benefits — and that’s assuming China and other large emerging economies cut their emissions too. Seen this way, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that net zero is a form of climate sadism, especially on the middle class and the less well-off.
What the IPCC did do is provide a blueprint of what is needed to reach net zero. To call it a drastic prescription would be an understatement. Net zero means far more than relying on 100 percent so-called clean energy, a practical impossibility without a huge surge of nuclear power (infeasible anyway under Biden’s policies). The IPCC’s net-zero blueprint sees market capitalism replaced with global central planning to bring about top-down transformations of the economy — not only in energy but also in manufacturing, construction, transportation, agriculture and land use.
America’s farmers and the food industry will be in for the shock of their lives when they find out what net zero means for them. By targeting the demand for meat and other livestock products with taxes and other policy measures, the IPCC reckons that dietary shifts could contribute one-fifth of the emissions cuts needed to keep warming below 2°C, particularly where consumption is higher than suggested by human health guidelines.
The energy transformation and the shift away from meat and dairy necessitate massive changes in land use. Agricultural land is to be converted to forest, requiring “distinct policy and government measures,” according to the IPCC. Presumably, Biden’s plan for a Civilian Climate Corps composed of “a new, diverse generation of patriotic Americans” would be put to work planting trees across millions of acres of pastureland to convert them into forest in order to meet Biden’s net-zero goal. It isn’t hard to fathom the anti-democratic implications of the IPCC’s call for “enhanced institutional capabilities” and “stringent policy interventions” to meet net zero.
Biden has made a massive political bet on net zero and created an opportunity for President Trump to make a contrasting pitch to blue-collar and rural America. In his climate-plan video, Biden speaks of honoring the workers of industrial America. “They’ve earned our thanks, our respect, and our support,” he says, sounding like a manager giving a long-serving employee his gold watch. His plan includes 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells — the same ones that would be shuttered by his climate policies.
No amount of unionization – a big Biden theme – can offset the difference in economic value accruing to workers helping to get energy out of the ground versus those working to keep it in the ground. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, from 2007 to 2019, innovation in U.S. shale production brought an eight-fold increase in extraction productivity for natural gas and a nineteen-fold increase for oil. No other nation on earth has such an enviable record, which Biden wants to scrap.
“Global action requires American leadership,” the candidate says. The real obstacle has never been leadership but follow-ship. From the moment the international climate negotiations got underway three decades ago, it has always been the West leading and the rest of the world going its own way. Biden, after all, was one of 92 senators who in 1997 voted for the Byrd-Hagel resolution that effectively torpedoed the Kyoto Protocol for exempting China and other developing nations from emissions cuts.
Give Biden some credit. Here, for once, is a politician advocating draconian emissions cuts who mentions the elephant in the room — China. The former vice president says he’ll hold Chinese leaders accountable if they don’t cut their emissions. But in accordance with the Paris Agreement, China is committing only to peaking its emissions sometime around 2030. Meanwhile, Beijing is building more coal plants to fuel its post-Covid recovery. Biden calls on China to cease financing dozens of coal plants across Asia. If President Xi Jinping doesn’t accede to that demand, would a President Biden send a gunboat up the Yangtze, or perhaps initiate another trade war?
Joe Biden has given the climate warriors in his party the vegan equivalent of red meat. He has also made climate and energy a major issue in the 2020 election. It remains to be seen whether the Trump campaign has the focus and discipline to exploit it.
Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow of the RealClear Foundation and author of “The Climate Noose.”