During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden heralded climate change as one of his four priorities along with fighting the Coronavirus, economic recovery, and racial equality. For the first time, climate change featured as a key priority in a Presidential race.
In the first few weeks of his mandate, Biden proved he intended to stick to his commitments since, hours after his inauguration, he re-entered the United States in the Paris Agreement, which was abandoned by Donald Trump in 2017.
To emphasize his engagement he appointed John Kerry, Obama’s former Secretary of State and one of the architects of the Paris Agreement as Special Envoy for Climate. He chose Jennifer Granholm, a politician with sound experience in energy and environmental issues, as his Energy Secretary. This was in striking contrast to Trump’s appointment of Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy, as Perry was anecdotally known for declaring he wanted to dismantle the Department of Energy in 2012.
Additional initiatives are in the making and will radically change US energy and climate policies with substantial implications for the country and the international arena.
Changes in domestic politics
Some analysts suggest Biden's room for manoeuvre will be limited as Democrats have a narrow majority of 51 to 50 in the Senate with the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. Moreover, in the House of Representatives, Democratic majority was reduced after the 2020 election and is strained on climate issues by divisions between moderates and progressives.
Despite such constraints, Biden will take advantage of four decades of experience in Congress and his personal capacity to push through legislation by striking, when necessary, pragmatic compromises with the opposition.
Besides seeking compromise with Republicans, the new President may use "Executive Orders" to push through his clean-energy agenda. Donald Trump used 24 Executive Orders during his first 100 days in office. Biden has also indicated he will use them to overturn Trump’s decisions and implement his climate plan.
An impressive objective of Biden’s climate plan is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 with an intermediate target of carbon-free generation of electricity by 2035.
Rearching carbon-free electricity by 2035 will be challenging, as renewables represented less than 20% of electricity production in the US in 2019. An additional 20% was produced from nuclear, leaving 60% of remaining electricity supplied by fossil fuels. Though renewables are booming in the US, reaching net-zero CO2 emissions from power generation by 2035 appears arduous.
Biden also launched a kind of crusade against the oil and gas industries, indicating he will not allow fracking and will introduce a moratorium on new hydrocarbon exploration leases on federal land. These measures look impressive, but they have limited impact on oil production as almost 90% of US oil and gas activities take place either on state or private areas.
He also decided to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline aiming at bringing Canadian oil to the USA. The cancellation of the pipeline will not reduce demand for oil, as in its absence crude oil could be transported by rail or imported via tankers. These measures, though highly publicized, will have limited impact on oil demand and its subsequent emissions.
On the other hand, the re-introduction of stricter standards for vehicles could lead to a substantial reduction in oil consumption and its ensuing emissions. Under Obama, carmakers had to reduce CO2 emissions for each passenger and light-duty vehicles by 3.5% annually between 2017 and 2021, and by 5% per year between 2022 and 2025. Moreover, California and twelve other states were allowed to set their own stricter standards.
Subsequently, Trump lowered year-over-year reductions to 1.5% up to 2026 and withdrew individual states’ waivers to set stricter standards.
Biden’s plan suggests his fuel economy standards will go beyond those of the Obama administration. This initiative could considerably curb oil demand and its associated emissions in transport.
Beside acting on the legislative front Biden has also proposed a huge economic stimulus to fight climate change, promote growth and support clean energy technology. On this Biden intend to go very far, with support measured in trillion rather than billions of USD, making clean energy spending the central priority of his proposal.
Changes in international relations
New momentum could also be expected in international relations as Biden's vision in this area is completely different from Trump’s. During his tenure, the former President preferred “muscular” bilateral relations, disregarding or even opposing multilateral or regional cooperation frameworks.
Biden, by contrast, sees US allies as a global-scale multiplier of American influence. A multiplier that would allow a country with a quarter of global GDP to increase its strength through synergetic policies with its allies.
After signing the USA back into the Paris Agreement, Biden called a Climate Summit for Earth Day on 22 April 2021. The objective of the Summit is to prepare for the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26) in November 2021 in Glasgow.
At the COP26, signatories of the Paris Agreement will submit their revised pledges for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — the so-called National Determined Contributions. The European Union will pledge a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. However, the EU represents less than 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and, in order to achieve concrete results, it is mandatory that the commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 is pursued by several other countries.
The new engagement by the USA on climate change could be the catalyst for an alliance involving, besides the EU, countries with plans for carbon neutrality by 2050, and possibly China.
The additional involvement of China, the world’s largest emitter of emissions, would be fundamental. Though the country announced a zero-emission target by 2060, its recent actions do not at all reflect its green narrative. In 2020, China built 40 GW of coal power plants and currently has 247 GW of coal power under construction. In order to engage with China, Biden has organized a US-China Summit on top of the April Climate Summit.
The concrete engagement by the USA, the EU, other like-minded countries, and possibly China will allow a critical number of states to reach their carbon neutrality objectives and to make a leapfrog jump towards the achievement of the Paris Agreement.
Finally, though energy accounts for three quarters of global emissions, initiatives should be pursued in other sectors as well. A key opportunity to reduce emissions comes from “carbon sink”, provided by forests. Unfortunately, in 2020 the pace of deforestation in the Amazon forest was 10% higher than in the previous year. It would be essential to bring the Amazon forest’s owners on board to revert the deforestation trend. The upcoming Climate Summits are an ideal opportunity to discuss this issue with the countries that are involved, such as Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, who has been rather dismissive of climate issues so far.
- Biden will make a U-turn on US energy and climate policies through Presidential Executive Orders or through legislative procedure taking advantage of the Democrats’ majority in both chambers of Congress.
- He may face hurdles from the Federal Court, in which Trump appointed many conservative judges. Such judges could effectively stop some of Biden’s policies as they previously did with the Obama administration.
- On climate change, Biden will rebuild alliances with historical partners such as the EU, cooperate with other like-minded nations, and strive to strike pragmatic agreements with other major countries such as China.
- The upcoming United Nation Conference of Parties (COP26) in November will be the acid test to see whether the Biden administration has been able to build an effective green international alliance to fight climate change.