Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Joe Biden is unlikely to pursue a carbon tax if he wins in November, according to several people familiar with his campaign's thinking.

Driving the news: The campaign said last year it supported a price on carbon emissions, but it has since released policies that embody government mandates, investments and job creation amid the pandemic-induced recession.

What they’re saying: The campaign’s positioning reflects the Democratic Party’s overall movement away from a carbon price and a new focus on economic recovery and equality, say people following the presidential nominee’s positions.

  • “The [climate] community has largely moved into a different framework,” said John Podesta, a longtime Democratic political operative who has advised the last two Democratic presidents.
  • “A real disadvantage of just a pricing scheme is you can’t directly attack the environmental injustice problem,” said Podesta, who is in regular contact with the Biden campaign. “In contrast, Biden has proposed that 40% of the [clean energy] investments go to distressed communities.”
  • “I don’t think the campaign is going to push this,” said another person familiar with the positioning on a carbon tax. “I think it’s almost always the right policy except in a recession or coming out of a recession.”

For the record: Biden campaign spokesperson Matt Hill declined to comment. Public information about the nominee’s positions compel some reading between the lines.

  • The campaign’s June 2019 plan includes language calling on Congress to create an “enforcement mechanism” to cut carbon emissions, which at the time the campaign said indicated a carbon price.
  • Its July plan, which is meant to complement the earlier draft, doesn’t repeat that language but does include a clean-electricity standard, which could impose an implicit price on electricity emissions.

The big picture: Most economists and businesses support an explicit carbon price over standards or other policies. They argue it’s the most straightforward and predictable way to cut heat-trapping emissions.

  • But many politicians in the Democratic Party and climate activists have moved away from supporting a carbon price as a core policy over the last couple years, arguing that, compared to mandates and regulations, a market-based approach can’t guarantee the steep emission reductions scientists say are now needed to address climate change.
  • (Some Republicans have begun to speak more favorably of acting on climate change, but their proposals are far narrower than a carbon tax.)

The other side: A growing list of corporations and lobbying interests have poured money into carbon tax campaigns on Capitol Hill in recent years, but these efforts have not produced public results.

  • The Climate Leadership Council, a coalition founded in February 2017, and a related lobbying effort launched in 2018 are pushing a carbon price whose funds go back to all Americans via dividend checks. Numerous corporations, including big oil companies, are supportive, as are former top Republican leaders and environmental groups.
  • The group said early this year the Senate would introduce a bipartisan version of its plan by mid-year, but now it’s eyeing next year, according to Greg Bertelsen, executive vice president of the group.

What we’re watching: If Democrats take control of the Senate, its leaders could pursue a carbon tax, opening up a narrow path for congressional bargaining that Biden could back as president.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate’s second-top ranking Democrat, introduced a carbon price bill in June, though it wouldn’t impose the tax until after the recession (though no later than 2023).

Go deeper:

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