Biden won. What’s next for US climate policy?

Joe Biden made it clear during the U.S. presidential campaign that climate change would be one of the priorities of his administration, after four years in which president Trump loosened environmental legislation and openly stated his skepticism of climate science.

An ambitious climate and clean energy plan has been laid down during the presidential campaign, which includes re-joining the Paris Agreement on day one of his presidency in January, adopting a net-zero emissions target by 2050 and allocating $2 trillion in clean energy investments during his first term.

His cabinet and agency picks, notably John Kerry, former Secretary of State and a key architect of the Paris Agreement, as the special presidential envoy for climate, as well as Michael Regan, North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, are also a sign of the new administration’s willingness to act on climate change.

The international dimension of the US climate policy is expected to be significant under Biden’s presidency, supporting his ambition to restore America’s leadership in global affairs.

As it becomes more and more clear that climate change is one of the most serious threats that humankind is facing, entailing dramatic effects for both developed and developing countries, it is alluring to adopt a climate friendly discourse on the global stage. The case is even stronger for the US, as it is the second largest polluter in terms of absolute emissions after China, and a major economic power.

The promised return of the US to multilateralism is good news for the global climate agenda – no international agreement could be truly credible if the US is not part of it, considering its economic and political hegemony and its share of global emissions. However, the dramatic shift from president Trump’s “America First” policy to a more cooperative approach to global affairs will take some time to concretize. The confidence of America’s partners has severely deteriorated in the past four years, and while they will welcome the US back at the table, they might approach more cautiously the new administrations’ ambitions, especially as it would not be the first time that good intentions have gone wrong.

In international climate negotiations, the US often overpromised and underdelivered.

Good intentions have gone wrong in the past: the Kyoto Protocol signed in 1997, that was meant to be the first legally binding international climate agreement, tying developed countries to their emission reduction objectives, was doomed to fail when the US ultimately decided not to ratify it after a change of administration. It took years to restore the confidence in the multilateral framework for climate change. Similarly, the Paris Agreement exposed the vulnerabilities of the multilateral system and the difficulties to translate engagement on the international arena into national legislation.

Negotiated during the Obama administration, the US played an important role in drafting the Agreement, a landmark deal that included for the first-time emission reduction objectives for both developed and developing countries and that recovered confidence in the UNFCCC process. However, in what seemed like a déjà-vu, the change of administration decided the US’ withdrawal from the agreement, the only country to do so out of almost 200 signatories.

With this rather mixed record of the American leadership in international climate negotiations, Joe Biden will be faced with the challenge of ensuring that he is not making promises that cannot be delivered at home. With the Democrats now holding a slim majority in both Houses of the Congress, the way towards achieving his policy goals is smoother but not without serious obstacles.

Creating a national consensus on climate change will be no easy task: the deep divisions within the American society did not disappear with Biden’s victory and despite a growing national movement for climate action, there is still a long way to go to get close to a general consensus on this matter. Ambitious, wide-reaching climate policies will make both winners and losers, especially considering the prevalence of the fossil fuel industry in the US economy.

Just about ten years ago, the US pioneered the shale gas revolution that turned it into a net exporter of natural gas. While it was one of the finest examples of energy innovation, and also helped reduce the country’s CO2 emissions over the past few years through coal-to-gas switching, the future of the industry is uncertain should the country’s focus shift on decarbonizing the entire economy.

Fracking has been linked to important levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that does not remain in the atmosphere as long as CO2, but with a warming potential that is 84 times higher[1].

So far, Joe Biden has ruled out a fracking ban, but intends to set more stringent rules for the industry.

One example is his plan to issue a permitting ban for new oil and gas projects on federal lands and waters. However, they represent a small share of the US’ shale production – only 22% of the country’s oil production and 13% of its natural gas production comes from licenses that are federally owned[2].

Looking first at the opportunities, fulfilling his promises regarding climate policies is a great chance to reconcile with the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which remained bitter after failing one more time to secure the nomination for one of their own. So far, Biden’s climate and energy plan is seen by analysts as the most ambitious of any US presidential candidate, but he will need to deliver on his pledges to be able to count on the support of his own colleagues for passing key legislation in other policy areas as well. Another opportunity is fostering the positive dynamics created in the past four years by backlash to the Trump administration’s refusal to act on climate change, that has brought together a myriad of actors from companies to cities and federal states, which are taking the climate agenda upon themselves.

Where federal policy stagnated, some states have stepped up to fill the gap.

Soon after the announcement that the US would leave the Paris Agreement, the US Climate Alliance was created, comprising now 24 states and two territories that would continue to work together to advance climate action[3]. Furthermore, during the Trump presidency, 15 states and territories have taken important steps toward a 100% clean energy future, with 10 of them having passed legislation in this regard[4]. Partnering with the states is crucial for ensuring the longevity of climate policies and fool-proofing them against major political changes at the federal level. The main difficulty in the short and medium term is the lack of financial resources to implement this agenda, as state budgets were severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In granting federal stimulus, president-elect Biden could get his inspiration from the way the European Union managed the recovery package to its member states, by attaching the condition that projects funded do no harm to climate change mitigation efforts.

Lastly, considering the pandemic’s toll on the economy, the next few years will be a balancing act between managing the lasting effects of the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis. Finding policies that address the economic fallout of the pandemic in an inclusive way that also meets the criteria for an ambitious climate agenda is no easy task. Decarbonizing a vast economy, whose decades of growth relied on fossil fuels, means detaching an embedded part of the US economy. A just transition needs to be at the core of the administration’s climate efforts in order to mitigate the risk of further alienating an important part of the population that have made their livelihoods in the industry.  In this respect, it is the most disadvantaged communities that could suffer from structural changes in the economy, notably those from the states that are highly dependent on fossil fuels. Including those populations in the design and delivery of economic and environmental policies that address the energy industry is therefore paramount to the success of a Biden administration and those that follow.

[1] Environmental Defense Fund (n.d.). Methane: The other important greenhouse gas.

[2] The Guardian (2020). How tough will Joe Biden be on the US shale industry?

[3] Center for American Progress (2020). States are Laying a Roadmap For Climate Leadership.

[4] Ibid.

*Laura Camarut is an EPG Fellow. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EPG.

Latest Publications