How Green Is Joe Biden’s Green New Deal?

BY JOHN MILLER | September/October 2020

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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This article is from the September/October 2020 issue.

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If Mr. Biden’s proposal isn’t quite the Green New Deal, you can see a likeness. But at least Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the socialist Congresswoman, is honest about some of the costs she would impose.
—Editorial Board, “Joe Biden’s Green Free Lunch,” Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2019.

Take climate change. If Mr. Biden really cared, he would propose a carbon tax. Washington could keep its corrupting mitts off investment decisions.

In 2008, after the Obama Democrats won full control in Washington unpopular, tax-like measures were no longer necessary. The climate problem could be solved with subsidies.

Overnight, the Democratic focus went from climate policy to climate pork. And so it has remained.
—Holman Jenkins, “Biden’s Climate Plan Is Serious—About Green Pork,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2020.

The Wall Street Journal editors and opinion columnists sure don’t like Joe Biden’s Green New Deal proposals. The editors teed off on Biden’s moderate proposal, released in June 2019 during the Democratic presidential primary, which would have made $1.7 trillion in clean energy investments over the next 10 years, calling it a “green free lunch.” And Holman Jenkins used his column to dismiss the more ambitious climate proposal that Biden announced this July, upping his proposed clean-energy investments to $2 trillion during his first term, as “green pork.” Their disdain must surely be a sign that Biden’s climate proposals are awfully good. And what—this side of Dr. Seuss’s green eggs and ham—could be greener than a green free lunch of green pork?

But “good” and “green,” at least in the context of environmental policy, are relative terms. The ire of the Wall Street Journal crowd is no guarantee of the environmental bona fides of an environmental plan. Any program that promises to regulate emissions and to limit the U.S. economy’s dependence on technologies inimical to the future survival of the planet, no matter how moderate, would certainly raise the hackles of the Wall Street Journal editors.

We will need to look closely at Biden’s expanded climate plan, which promises to build much-needed green infrastructure and ensure an equitable transition to renewable energy. The plan includes recommendations from a joint task force that Biden created with Senator Bernie Sanders, which was led by former Secretary of State John Kerry and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Building off of his initial climate plan’s goal of the U.S. economy reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the expanded plan adds a commitment to attaining carbon-free electricity in the United States by 2035. This, along with other changes, such as a proposal to create an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Justice Department, were enough for many critics to change their minds. For example, the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group of environmental activists (Varshini Prakash, the organization’s co-founder and executive director, also served on the joint task force that wrote the proposal) had given Biden’s campaign an “F” on the organization’s Green New Deal Scorecard back in 2019. However, the group says that Biden is now “talking the talk” on climate change, and that their members and other activists will mobilize to make sure he will “walk the walk” once he’s elected. But even if climate activists are hopeful, just how good and green is Biden’s Green New Deal talk?

What’s Missing?

The original Green New Deal resolution, which was introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey back in February 2019, set the goal of the United States taking the lead in reducing global carbon emissions from human sources to 40% to 60% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching “net-zero global emissions by 2050.” Those goals are consistent with the recommendations of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The resolution also called for “high-quality health care” and a federal guarantee of “a job with a family-sustaining wage” for “all people in the United States.” The Biden proposal sets its goal as net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050. But there is no call for either universal health care or a federal jobs guarantee in the Biden plan. One might question the strategic wisdom of requiring universal health care in a plan to address climate change. But we know that Biden is no advocate of Medicare for All, whether as part of an environmental program or on its own.

A federal jobs guarantee is another daunting undertaking. For starters, it would likely require the federal government to hire at least 11 million workers. That is about three times the number of K-12 public school teachers in the United States and about five times the current federal government workforce, excluding the postal service. Public-sector spending large enough to bring about genuine full employment could meet the goal of a job guarantee, making sure there is a job available for anyone who wants one. Biden’s campaign website promises that his clean energy plan “can create 10 million well-paying jobs in the United States.” But he has not committed himself to using public spending to guarantee genuine full employment.

Is Biden’s Proposal Really a Green New Deal?

Does the Biden proposal add up to a Green New Deal? In many ways, the answer is yes. He sets the goal of a net-zero carbon economy, and his commitment to investing $2 trillion in clean energy during his first term in office is in line with the annual spending goals that Sanders outlined in his Green New Deal proposal, which was announced in August 2019. But Biden’s $2 trillion is only a down payment. His proposal falls a bit short of equaling the annual clean energy investments of 2% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product, or the dollar value of the nation’s annual output) that economist Robert Pollin found is necessary to move the U.S. economy to net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050. The Sanders campaign proposed a total $16.3 trillion in clean energy investments, and Pollin’s plan relies on a total of $18 trillion of clean energy investments between now and 2050. The Biden proposal makes no such long-term commitment, although it still promises that the U.S. economy will somehow be net-carbon neutral by 2050.

While Biden’s proposal lacks the necessary decades-long commitment to clean energy investments, his plan does devote resources to cleaning up the environment on a scale that is comparable to the New Deal legislation that was enacted by the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression. New Deal spending averaged 1.36% of GDP from 1933 to 1937, although it was as high as 3.0% in 1933, the first year of the program. Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan would average 1.74% of the GDP levels that the Congressional Budget Office projects for the next four years. That’s a good start, but only a start.

The Green New Deal resolution put forward by Markey and Ocasio-Cortez also calls for a mobilization of resources comparable to the government-led efforts during the New Deal, as well as the far-greater government outlay of resources during World War II. U.S. military spending during the five years of World War II averaged about $1 trillion (corrected for inflation) a year. That is about twice the annual spending of either the Biden or Sanders proposals. Nonetheless, successfully combating climate change will require investments over the next three decades that total three to four times the $5 trillion (corrected for inflation) that the United States spent during World War II. Investments on that level are indeed massive, but they are not beyond our reach: The federal government spent $12 trillion to bail out the financial sector during the Great Recession, and federal stimulus spending during the current pandemic will likely exceed $4 trillion. What’s more, the 2017 Trump tax cut, whose benefits went overwhelming to the richest 1% and did precious little to boost investment, will cost $1.9 trillion over 10 years.

In still other ways, the Wall Street Journal set was rightfully rendered apoplectic by the Biden proposal. Much as Jenkins fears, if enacted, Biden’s plan would move the Democratic Party away from the more market-driven proposals such as the carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs it has favored in the past, and it would firmly place the government’s “mitts” on private investment decisions. Private investments would then need to conform to a battery of environmental regulations and would be shaped by environmental industrial policy. The Biden plan would:

  • Mandate that the electrical sector generate carbon-free power by 2035.
  • Accelerate the adoption of zero-emission light- and medium-duty vehicles by upping fuel standards, providing consumer subsidies for the purchase of U.S.-made clean vehicles, and building 500,000 electrical vehicle charging stations.
  • Upgrade four million buildings and weatherize two million homes for energy efficiency over four years.
  • Direct 40% of the benefits of the government’s energy and infrastructure spending into historically disadvantaged communities.

These environmental interventions into the private economy, no matter how distasteful they might be to Jenkins, are key to making lasting and sustainable environmental improvements. In 1997, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Barry Commoner, the environmental scientist and 1980 Citizens Party presidential candidate, gave an interview to Scientific American, lamenting the failure of U.S. environmental policy. For Commoner, the only lasting U.S. environmental successes came from banning activities inimical to the environment, such as ending the use of leaded gas, which the Clean Air Act banned in 1996, leading to dramatically reduced lead levels in the air. Commoner went on to argue that:

What is needed now is a transformation of the major systems of production more profound than even the sweeping post-World War II changes in production technology. Restoring environmental quality means substituting solar sources of energy for fossil and nuclear fuels; substituting electric motors for the internal-combustion engine; substituting organic farming for chemical agriculture; expanding the use of durable, renewable and recyclable materials—metals, glass, wood, paper—in place of the petrochemical products that have massively displaced them.

In short, what Commoner called for was a Green New Deal—a program that calls for massive investments in building a clean energy economy. Now, more than two decades later, the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party has finally embraced a version of a Green New Deal.

Is Biden’s Proposal Green Enough?

The Biden proposal is green, but is it green enough? In some key areas his proposal falls far short of what we should expect from a Green New Deal, at least one in the spirit of Commoner’s clarion call for an environmental industrial policy. To begin with, the Biden proposal does not do enough to transform the transportation sector, which is the largest source of climate pollution in the United States. Despite its emphasis on electric vehicles, it never sets a target date for all new vehicles to be electric. The Sanders proposal sets 2030 as its target for all-electric vehicles.

Also antithetical to Commoner’s prescription, Biden says he intends to ban fracking only for oil and gas production on federal lands, not more broadly. The Sanders plan, on the other hand, bans all fracking. (The word “fracking” never appears in Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s original Green New Deal resolution.) Matt Gallagher, president of Parsley Energy, a West Texas oil producer, told the New York Times that, “There is a lot of room for oil and gas” in the Biden plan. The Biden proposal also promises to support carbon-capture technology. This still unproven and prohibitively expensive technology would allow coal-powered power plants to continue to generate electricity if they can capture and store their carbon waste. Both storing the carbon, and the likely leakage, promise to be environmentally destructive.

Nuclear power is also part of the Biden plan’s strategy for generating carbon-free electricity by 2035. But as Pollin has pointed out, the average cost of generating a kilowatt of electricity with nuclear power is twice that from using solar or wind power, and nuclear power poses serious dangers for public health from radioactive waste, spent fuels, and meltdowns. This is no time for half measures. The increase in CO2 emissions since the onset of industrialization in the mid-19th century has pushed up the average temperature of the Earth by a little more than 1 degree Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), growing ever closer to the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) rise that will assure complete environmental destruction. A 2015 report of the IPCC found that 65% of the carbon budget, the amount of carbon emissions that are compatible with a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius, had already been used up by 2011. And in their 2018 report, the IPCC warned that global warming needs to be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius to reduce the risk of heat extremes, heavy precipitation, droughts, sea level rise, biodiversity losses, and severe impacts on health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, and human security.

We know that, unlike the protagonist in Dr. Seuss’s story Green Eggs and Ham, the Wall Street Journal crowd is never going to like the Green New Deal, no matter where or when they try it. But that should not deter us. We need to get busy bringing about the five-course meal of Green New Deal reforms that Barry Commoner envisioned. To do that we need to marshal resources on a scale that recognizes our environmental crisis for the existential threat that it is, not just for four years, but also for the foreseeable future.

is a professor of economics at Wheaton College and a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal,” House Resolution 109, February 2019; Julia Conley, “Sanders Scores Highest Mark on Sunrise Movement's Climate Report Card While Biden Told It's "Parent-Teacher Conference Time,” Common Dreams, Dec. 6. 2019 (; Bill McKibben, “What Joe Biden’s Climate Plan Really Signals,” The New Yorker, July 22, 2020 (; “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future,” available at; “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations Combating the Climate Crisis and Pursuing Environmental Justice,” available at; Robert Pollin, “How Do We Pay for a Zero-Emissions Economy?,” The American Prospect, Dec. 5, 2019 (; “Issues: The Green New Deal,” available at; Mark Paul, William Darity, and Darrick Hamilton, “The Federal Job Guarantee—A Policy to Achieve Permanent Full Employment,” Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, March 2018 (; Josh Bivens, “How Do our job creation recommendations stack up against a job guarantee?” Economic Policy Institute, Working Economics Blog, April 2018 (; Dean Baker, “Dem’s Job Guarantee Isn’t Nearly as Easy as it Sounds,” The Daily Beast, April 2018 (; Adie Tomer, Joseph Kane, and Robert Puentes, “How Historic Would a $1 Trillion Infrastructure Program Be?,” Brookings Institution, March 2017 (; Jordan Weissmann, “Joe Biden Is Campaigning on the Green New Deal, Minus the Crazy,” Slate, July 15, 2020 (; Alan Hall, “Interview with Barry Commoner,” Scientific American, June 23, 1997 (; Oakley Shelton-Thomas, “Sorry, Fossil Fuel Industry. ‘Carbon Capture’ Isn’t A Magic Climate Cure,” Food & Water Watch, April 10, 2020 (; Justine Calma, “The Green New Deal is here, and everyone has something to say about it,” Grist, Feb. 7, 2019 (; Clifford Krauss and Ivan Penn, “Oil and Gas Groups See ‘Some Common Ground’ in Biden Energy Plan,” New York Times, July 28, 2020 (; Minh Ha Duong, “The challenges of Climate Change and the COP21,” Climate Change Forum, U.N. Climate Change Conference, June 19, 2015; V. Masson-Delmotte et al., “Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C,” International Panel on Climate Change Special Report, Oct. 8, 2018 (; Robert Pollin, “Biden Not Phasing Out Fossil Fuel, Relies on Carbon Capture,”, Aug. 31, 2020 (

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