By Fareed Zakaria

The prospect of Bernie Sanders becoming the Democratic nominee has startled many people who worry that his brand of democratic socialism won’t sell and would pave the way for a second Trump term. This might well be true, but it considers Sanders solely through the lens of electability. Surely the more important question is not whether his programs would be popular but whether they are good. It’s time to stop grading Bernie Sanders on a curve and to start asking what the country would look like if he were to become president.

Let’s consider the topic that he argues is “the single greatest challenge” facing America and a “global emergency”: climate change. Sanders wants to commit the United States to achieving 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030 and the total decarbonization of the economy by 2050. These are laudable though ambitious goals. The question is, how will the U.S. go about meeting them?

Under Barack Obama, the United States reduced emissions more than any other country. It did it through many paths, but the biggest one was — fracking.

U.S. carbon emissions fell almost 15 percent from 2005 to 2016. According to the website Carbon Brief, the single largest cause was the shift from coal-fired power plants to natural gas ones, comprising 33 percent of the reduction. Adoption of solar power accounted for 3 percent, by comparison. (Natural gas has much lower rates of carbon emission than does coal. It also produces much less pollution than coal, saving thousands of lives in the United States every year.)

     Nevertheless, Bernie Sanders is opposed to natural gas. He opposes all new fracking and seeks to ban it nationwide within five years. He also intends to rapidly shut down all gas plants.

      Natural gas accounts for about 30 percent of the energy consumption in America today. Wind and solar are under 5 percent. So, the plan would require an exponential jump in renewables, in just a few years.

And even if that happened, it would be extremely difficult to replace gas as a source for electricity. Talk to any electric utility company and they will explain. Because solar and wind are intermittent sources, they require a backup source in order to provide electricity to homes, offices and factories 24/7. That raises the costs associated with solar and wind.

Sanders has a solution: storage. If we had the means to store electricity on a massive scale, such as batteries, there would be no need for backup power. But we are not even close to having the kind of storage capacity we would need to make this work. One example: the Clean Air Task Force, an energy policy think tank, calculated that for California to reach 100 percent electricity from renewables, it would need 36.3 million megawatt-hours of energy storage. It currently has 150,000 megawatt-hours of storage. In other words, the state would need to increase storage by 24,000 percent in a matter of years. Batteries are getting cheaper, but not fast enough.

There is another path to clean energy, a source that has zero carbon emissions and provides a continuous flow of electricity: nuclear power. It generates about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States. It is the largest source of power in France and provides 40 percent of power in Sweden, two countries with carbon emission rates that are among the lowest per person in the industrialized world.

But Bernie Sanders opposes nuclear power. In fact, he plans to shut down all of America’s nuclear power plants within 10 years. Fears about nuclear power, which Sanders clearly shares, are largely based on emotional reactions to the few high-profile accidents that have taken place over the past few decades. Such anxiety also ignores the millions of people who die each year due to fossil fuels. Our World in Data, an Oxford University-based think tank, just released a comprehensive accounting of the safest sources of energy, considering all harmful effects, including accidents. Nuclear energy was 250 times safer than oil and over 300 times safer than coal.

Let me be clear. Natural gas and nuclear power have drawbacks and costs. There is no perfect energy solution on hand today. But I believe that we do in fact face a global emergency and need every means possible to reduce emissions — now. Not tomorrow, not in theory. Now.

The Sanders green energy “plan” is based on magical thinking. It presumes that we can reduce emissions in electricity and transport to zero in 10 years while simultaneously shutting down the only two low-emission, always-available sources of power that together provide nearly 60 percent of America’s electricity. And that makes me wonder: Is the real problem that Sanders will lose — or that he might win? 

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

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