Will the Biden presidency bring a renaissance of environmental policy in the US?
By Ladislav Zeman
The regressive environmental policy of the Trump administration culminated with the official withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement on the 4th of November, just one day after the presidential election. Joe Biden has presented himself as a candidate who would respect the scientific consensus and pledged to take action to address the threat posed by climate change. While the incumbent President Trump has not officially conceded to his opponent, it seems appropriate to discuss the potential of Biden presidency regarding environmental policy.
The state of play: 4 years of Trump’s agenda
The approach of Donald Trump towards environmental protection can be described as a process of undermining key agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and of an extensive rollback of environmental laws and regulations.
Soon after taking office, Trump appointed Scott Pruitt as the administrator of the EPA despite, or maybe because, he is known as a climate change denier. Pruitt resigned in 2018 due to a range of ethical controversies. His replacement, a former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has been efficient at dismantling the EPA from within.
In addition to undermining environmental institutions, the policy of Donald Trump has also been characterized by a large-scale effort at weakening environmental regulations by issuing executive orders. Barack Obama, the former President, resorted to executive action on the environment due to an opposed Congress which left the progress wide open to reversal by Donald Trump. An order focused on simplifying environmental reviews in favour of faster approvals of infrastructure projects was signed by Trump only four days after his inauguration.
According to the New York Times, the Trump administration has dismantled over 80 environmental regulations. To avoid the most significant impacts of climate change and keep global warming under 1.5°C, the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Considering this context, the approach taken by President Trump is worrying since, according to Our World in Data, the United States is responsible for a quarter of historical emissions and remains second, behind China, in yearly carbon emissions.
Most likely, we will see a change of personnel in the Oval Office in January. Consequently, we should examine the environmental policies of President-elect Biden. The key point of Biden’s Clean Energy Revolution plan is the commitment to achieving a net zero emissions society by 2050. This goal is in line with pledges of other countries, such as Japan or the UK. The technologically most developed countries should arguably aim to achieve net zero sooner than that. However, the 2050 commitment is still a significant step forward for the future of American environmental policy.
On the domestic front, Biden plans to provide $1.7 trillion of federal investment over the next 10 years to start up the transformation needed to achieve a net zero society by 2050. Additionally, Biden promises to demand Congress to pass legislation which would establish an enforcement mechanism for the 2050 goal in the first year of his presidency. Other aspects of his legislative agenda include, for example, investment into green technology, development of carbon capture and storage infrastructure and improving the energy efficiency of buildings.
On the international level, the crucial change that a Biden presidency would bring is the readmission of the US into the Paris Climate Agreement. A renewed commitment of the US would strengthen the legitimacy of the Paris Agreement. The US continues to be the prominent player in the global political arena and wields considerable influence over other states. This is also manifested by the pledge to a diplomatic push focused on increasing the emissions targets of states around the world. Special attention is given to China, which is viewed as a cheater who ‘games the system’.
The first question that comes to mind is whether these ambitions are plausible.
Over-optimistic or realistic?
The environmental agenda of Joe Biden is the most ambitious yet. It will provide the much-needed momentum to climate change efforts globally and move the world closer to the ultimate goal of keeping global warming under 1.5°C. Nevertheless, the election battle revealed how fractured the US is. These divisions are bound to be a challenge for what is a 180° turn in policy. The ability to restore unity inside of the States is critical if Joe Biden wishes to implement his Clean Energy Revolution effectively.
Alongside the presidential election, voters also chose new senators and members of the House of Representatives. The Democrats will be able to keep their majority in the House despite losing some seats. In the Senate, a possibility of a 50-50 split is possible after Republican losses in Colorado and Arizona. The two seats in Georgia will go into runoff elections. However, even if there is a split Senate, 60 votes are required to pass a meaningful climate bill. The composition of the Congress is crucial for Biden’s environmental agenda as he will need to work with both branches to avoid using mostly executive orders. So far, we have not seen a significant bipartisan action on climate change which does not seem very realistic, considering the divisive election campaigns.
Finally, challenges are also present internationally. Most notably, the increasingly strained relations between the US and China. Biden promises to keep China accountable. Will he be able to bridge some of the gaps created by the trade war of the last few years? And does the US still hold the power necessary to be a global leader in the fight against climate change? These questions will define how effective the Biden administration will be at the international level.
Next four years will bring a lot of changes – how significant they will be remains to be seen. There are positive signs in the environmental policy of the coming president. However, considerable challenges, both domestic and international, remain.