Carnegie Mellon University
October 07, 2020

Democratic vs. Republican energy policy: Does it really make a difference?

One of the biggest differences between the policies of the Democratic and Republican parties in recent years has been their approach to climate change. More specifically, the role of U.S. energy policy in carbon emissions output. Many approaches have been put forward by both parties to address this, some emphasizing the need for renewable energy generation strategies, while others highlight the need to bolster the fossil fuel industry for economic resiliency. But do these professed policy differences actually make a difference? And for how long?

Engineering and Public Policy Professors Paul Fischbeck and Haibo Zhai, and Ph.D. candidate Jeffrey Anderson, along with Electricity Industry Center adjunct faculty David Rode, tackle these supposed policy differences in their article “U.S. energy policy: Two paths diverge in a wood…does it matter which is taken?” published in Environmental Science and Technology. According to the researchers, proposed energy plans from both parties are effective in exceeding 2030 power-sector emissions goals, but the reasons for this are entirely different in each case.

“The Republican path, focused on increasing natural gas supply, involves reductions in coal and nuclear generation,” the team writes. “The Democrat path, focused on restricting natural gas supply in favor of renewables, involves increases in coal and nuclear generation since there is no cost currently associated with CO2 emissions in the 2020 Democratic party platform (like there was for the 2016 election). In both cases, the tradeoffs in generation sources offset both the positive and negative effects, leading to functionally similar outcomes in emissions reductions.”

More specifically, the CO2 emissions outcomes for both parties’ plans differ by only 1%, and both plans result in a reduction of more than 400 million tonnes beyond the since-repealed 2015 Clean Power Plan, created under the Obama administration. What’s more, both parties’ plans will result in a 48% overall reduction from power-sector emissions in 2005.

“Does this mean that while the goals, intentions, and pathways of the parties are headed off in opposite directions,” the researchers posit, “both results are environmentally beneficial in the near-term? Yes, both party’s policies are arguably beneficial for reducing CO2 emissions in the near-term.”

Yet, while both “high supply” and “low supply” natural-gas generation scenarios have set the U.S. on a path to exceed the 2030 CO2 reduction targets of the Paris Agreement, the researchers note that neither will help the U.S. achieve the IPCC 1.5° C 2050 goal of a net-zero carbon economy—or the recently announced more aggressive deadline of 2035 under the Biden plan.

In particular, the researchers assert that meeting these goals will require both parties to work together, which under this analysis they see as exceedingly possible, as the parties share much common ground. It will require an approach that relies on policy tools such as tax credits and R&D subsidies, which use free-market forces to incentivize zero-CO2 generation sources, including carbon capture utilization and storage. As their analysis indicates, however, effective use of free-market forces requires putting a price on CO2, which may prove difficult to implement due to the political unpopularity of a carbon tax or expensive allowance program, especially in an economically difficult environment.