The Dawn of a New Era? A Look at President Joe Biden’s Proposed Climate Policies

Today, on January 20th 2021, Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States. His inauguration brings excitement from those keen on seeing environmental action from the world’s largest economy. 

Those following American politics will be particularly optimistic about the prospects of climate-focused legislation given the recent runoff elections in the state of Georgia, which delivered a Democratic majority across both houses of the US Congress. Until the next midterm election in 2022, the Biden Administration has the rare opportunity to bring legislation without the significant hurdle of an opposition-controlled legislature. A look back at the challenges President Obama faced during the six years of his presidency when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives gives an indication of how important this window of opportunity is for the President.

The Biden-Harris presidential ticket campaigned with messages of environmental policy and justice, and the promise of rejoining the Paris Agreement following President Trump’s controversial decision to pull out of the treaty in 2017. Biden’s policy plans are captured in “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice”. Let’s take a look at the key tenants of the President’s outlined environmental policy.

The multi-trillion dollar “Biden Plan” will:

  1. Ensure the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and net zero emissions no later than 2050;
  2. Build a stronger and more resilient nation;
  3. Rally the rest of the world to address the grave climate threat; 
  4. Stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities;
  5. Fulfill our obligation to workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution; and decades of economic growth.

Each one of these five elements contains quite a bit of proposed policy, so let’s unpack some of the interesting points related to each. 

Ensure the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and net zero emissions no later than 2050: Biden has announced that he will issue a series of executive orders commiting the US to clean energy and emission reduction targets by the middle of the century. Perhaps even more interesting is his communicated intention to put in place an enforcement mechanism for these commitments by the end of his first term. President Trump’s infamous rollbacks of Obama-era environmental policy raise the question of what kind of enforcement will be put in place to reduce the risk of the US once again reversing on goals following a shift in political power. Under this first part of the plan, Biden also highlights the creation of the new Advanced Research Projects Agency focused on Climate (or ARPA-C) to accelerate the research and innovation necessary to achieving the 100% clean energy economy and net zero emissions goal by 2050.

Build a stronger and more resilient nation: The second bucket of the Biden plan focuses on rebuilding infrastructure such as roads, rail systems, bridges, buildings, water and electrical grids to better withstand the pressures of climate change and to enable faster recovery following natural disasters. After the record-shattering wildfires in California and increased hurricane intensity across the country, the Biden plan highlights “common sense zoning” policies to reduce building in areas with higher risk of climate disaster, as well as more affordable insurance for those investing in resiliency improvements. Underpinning all this activity is a drive to create jobs and provide job training for those looking to work in climate resilient industries. Also exciting is the promise of investment in rail systems for both passengers and freight in a country that has one of the highest car ownership rates in the world. 

Rally the rest of the world to address the grave climate threat: In addition to rejoining the Paris Agreement, Biden has outlined a series of policies designed to re-establish the US as a driver on the global stage when it comes to climate action. Amongst these policies is a proposal to tie American trading policies to climate objectives by charging fees or quotas for goods coming from countries that are deemed as “failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations”. This has the potential to be quite impactful for the US’ trading relationship with China and other nations depending on how the Biden Administration chooses to apply the policy. The President has also called for the end of fossil fuel subsidies, the implementation of a moratorium on Arctic offshore drilling, and to provide “green debt relief” for developing countries that are making investments in climate initiatives. 

Stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities: The Biden plan has a noticeable focus on environmental justice with nearly 40% of the estimated 1.7 trillion USD clean energy investment earmarked for historically disadvantaged communities that often suffer compounding negative effects from climate change. As a part of this focus, the President’s team has proposed creating a new division within the US Department of Justice that specifically focuses on environmental and climate justice issues and promises to increase oversight for corporations.

Fulfill our obligation to workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution; and decades of economic growth: The last part of the Biden plan focuses primarily on the coal mining communities in the US that will be heavily impacted by the transition to greener energy outlined in the first bucket of achieving 100% green energy by 2050. Biden and his team have indicated that they will create a task force devoted to helping impacted workers and communities. This task force will focus on job creation and bringing access to benefits and healthcare for those communities most affected by the energy transitions, which are set to destabilize the coal industry. 

2021 marks the dawn of a new era in Washington D.C. With the Democrats in control of both the Executive and Legislative branches of the US government for the first time in a decade, there is an opportunity for meaningful climate policy and lasting impact on the global climate crisis. Although Biden’s plan has been criticized by more progressive members of his party for not taking harder stances on topics like fracking and for not committing to support certain standards of the “Green New Deal”, President Biden has been very vocal in the lead up to his inauguration about wasting no time in moving forward with climate policies. Hopefully the President remembers the challenges he faced as a part of the Obama Administration and seizes the unique opportunity he now has to progress environmental policies and justice. 

Anna Breu has long been fascinated with the unique challenge of creating action around climate change and sustainability, and she holds a degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology from Middlebury College (USA). Anna works as an Associate Director at BTS in London where she focuses on strategy execution and creating change momentum in organizations, skills she likes to use outside work in the context of environmental issues. Anna is particularly focused on the role of her home country – the US – plays on the international stage, and is passionate about the potential of circular economies.

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