Bill RichardsonAs of today, Bill Richardson has become the boldest, most visionary Democratic presidential candidate on climate and energy policy. (John Edwards is a close second.) No politician from either party has put forward a plan that comes closer to being a realistic response to the energy shortages and climate chaos heading our way.

Here’s the heart of Richardson’s speech today:

We need a man-on-the-moon program to end this addiction, this hemorrhage.  But we need it much faster and much more boldly than people are suggesting.

When John F. Kennedy challenged this country to reach the moon, he challenged us to get there in TEN years, not twenty, or thirty, or forty.

On energy policy, we need to change fast, or sink slowly

I am issuing a call to action, for Congress, the energy industry, and the public. I am calling for a new American revolution — an energy and climate revolution.

Word.

He’s not kidding about much faster and much bolder, either. Here are the major planks of the plan, with some commentary.

Cut oil demand: 50% by 2020

This is bigger and faster than anything put forward by any other political figure I’m aware of — certainly vastly stronger than anything Bush has offered.

The key pieces are raising fuel-efficiency standards to 50mpg by 2020 (contrast to Bush’s plan to hit 35mpg by 2020, or Edwards’ to hit 40mpg by 2016), a new low-carbon standard for liquid fuels (30% carbon reduction by 2020), and substantial support for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.

Change to Renewable Sources for Electricity: 50% by 2040

This is incredibly ballsy — far and away the most ambitious target on the political table. (The closest comparison is Edwards’ plan to make power companies generate 25% of their power with renewables by 2025.)

A national renewable portfolio standard (RPS) would mandate that 30% of the nation’s energy come from renewables by 2020, and 50% by 2040. That’s stronger than any of the 21 states that currently have an RPS in effect. It would require a truly radical series of reforms in the way we generate and use electricity.

Dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions: 80% by 2040

This is where the cap-and-trade system comes in, pushing emissions down 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2040 (ten years earlier than Edwards’ plan — the strongest competitor –would hit that target).

Lead by example and restore America as the world’s leader

See if you can imagine Bush saying this:

We must return to the international negotiating table and support mandatory world-wide limits on global warming pollution. We will work closely with fast-growing nations and, as President, I will cooperate with the European Union, the World Bank, and other allies to help finance the small incremental cost of “doing it right.” I will create a North American Energy Council with Mexico and Canada, which supply about 20% of our oil, and make sure our relations with these neighbors are firm and friendly. As we reduce our demand for foreign oil, we should work with the Gulf nations, and our partners at the UN, to create a multilateral system for protecting the Gulf so that within ten years the U.S. presence in the Gulf could be sharply and safely reduced.

This kind of forthright, unabashed multilateralism is practically anachronistic these days, but this is the issue that will — if anything will — restore America’s position of leadership in the world.

Get it all done without breaking the bank

Richardson claims the programs, taken together, will produce 10 times more value than they cost. I’m inclined to believe that, but he’ll have a tough time convincing the public, especially with a chorus of conservatives forecasting economic doom. The question of whether we can decouple economic growth from CO2 emissions is one I suspect can only be answered by trying.

Anyway, I don’t think Richardson has much of a chance at the presidency, but this plan will have the salutary effect of further pushing the envelope of what’s possible on energy policy for whoever is elected. Kudos to him and his staff.