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What does a Biden presidency mean for U.S. climate policy?

In less than a week, America and the world bid Trump farewell and ushered in a new era with Joe Biden at the helm of the world’s most powerful position: the American presidency. It goes without saying that the job comes with many challenges, but one of the biggest ones will be on how to tackle the climate crisis.


The previous four years have been disastrous on the environmental front in America. Donald Trump not only talked the talk, he also walked the walk. A total of almost 100 environmental rules were rolled back and reversed, ranging from air pollution and emission regulations to water pollution legislation to the management of toxic substances and safety. The most notable ones include rules to cut greenhouse gases, energy efficiency standards and fuel economy regulations for cars and trucks. While Biden has made plenty of promises to make meaningful change, because of this predecessor, he is starting on the back foot. America’s most pressing issue right now is the coronavirus crisis and soaring rates of unemployment. Joe Biden’s presidency will have to find a tight balance between implementing new climate policies or taxes and smoothing out the economic recovery.

While running for president, one of his key platforms was his pledge on ensuring that climate change will be tackled. The Biden Plan wants to ensure that the U.S achieves a 100 per cent clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions by 2050, a pledge to pour investment towards building infrastructure which can withstand a changing climate, to protect vulnerable communities which are disproportionately impacted by the climate emergency and to recommit the U.S to the Paris Agreement. The campaign even went so far as to reject any contributions from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives. The way he has laid out his administration’s staff also shows the seriousness in tackling the issue. For example, putting former secretary of state John Kerry in charge of restoring America’s leadership and credibility globally, regarding the climate.


So far so good, ambitious targets, meaningful plans and a seemingly genuine desire for change. However, this begs the question of whether the goals are actually realistic or achievable. With 2050 still decades away, attention will be on Biden’s domestic policies in the coming years. Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas which needs to be countered: methane is much more potent and a greater cause of short-term warming. The main industries responsible for methane emissions are agriculture and the oil and gas industry. Keeping pressure on local authorities to abide by existing laws such as the Clean Air Act is something Biden can do right from the start.


Unfortunately, things are rarely perfect and Congressional Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell have hinted that they are against Biden’s agenda threatening the 60-vote supermajority in the Senate most bills need to clear to be passed. With a 6-3 Republican majority on the Supreme Court, judicially speaking it may be even less favourable for Biden than it was for Obama. As a result, even though the Democrats have control of the Presidency, the House and the Senate, less aggressive and more bipartisan approaches may be needed to win over the Republicans on the climate agenda.


Nonetheless, the president-elect still has an ace up his sleeve, the power of executive orders. During the Trump era, executive orders which don’t need congressional approval were used to press forward with environmental rollbacks. This time round, Biden is entering office prepared with a strong list of his own set of executive orders to pursue right from the get-go. They include requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains, using the federal government procurement system to drive toward 100 per cent clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles, ensuring that all U.S. government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready. Furthermore, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation and committing that every federal infrastructure investment should reduce climate pollution, and require any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. These are just three of at least ten executive actions that the Biden campaign press secretary has mentioned.


Another area where Biden can have a higher impact is on foreign policy. By re-entering the Paris climate agreement, he can throw the U.S’s economic and diplomatic prowess behind pushing other nations to play a bigger part on climate change, especially China who is the world’s top emitter.


Simply rolling back Trump’s damage would just bring the U.S back to where it was with Obama. This, coupled with the strong likeliness of Republican push-back, make it a truly monumental task for Joe Biden. While strong promises have been made and a strong will-for-change has been demonstrated, it remains to be seen whether these proposals will actually happen or end up stalled in the courts. The saving grace for Biden might be that the American public is more willing for environmental change than ever. Around 60 per cent of U.S adults acknowledge that global climate change is a major threat, an all-time high.


Despite Trump’s rollbacks, companies themselves acknowledge the need for tougher climate laws. In August 2020, automakers such as Volvo, Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen reached a deal with the state of California to impose tougher emissions limits on themselves. This signals that both the public and industry as a whole are motivated for change and recognise that this issue transcends above politics.


While it’s great to be cautious, it’s certain that things will only improve from here on out. Even though the most aggressive of Biden’s policies might never see the light of day, there is still tremendous ground for optimism.

Image: Wikimedia Commons