President Biden has no time to lose on climate

The Democrats now have control of all three branches of government but must move fast to facilitate US carbon neutrality by mid-century, writes Tan Copsey
<p>Environmental activists in New York call on Joe Biden to tackle climate change as he takes office as the 46th president of the United States (Image: Alamy) </p>

Environmental activists in New York call on Joe Biden to tackle climate change as he takes office as the 46th president of the United States (Image: Alamy) 

On 6 January, a grey and cold day in Washington DC, a violent mob fought their way into the United States Capitol, summoned by the departing President Trump to overturn his 2020 election defeat, someway, somehow. On the day rioters fought police, took selfies and looted souvenirs, another 3,900 people died of coronavirus in the country, the immediate economic outlook remained grim, and 2020 was confirmed as the equal hottest year on record. Yet despite all this, climate advocates could be forgiven for feeling something strange and unusual – hope.

The Trump era ended in disgrace, and he did everything he could to make things worse on his way out, including publishing debunked pseudoscience, encouraging drilling for oil in the Arctic and trying to make it easier for companies to pollute. But today he’ll be replaced by a president that takes climate change seriously, and who has by far the boldest climate plans of any US president to date, including decarbonising the entire economy by 2050.

President Biden’s chances of implementing those plans have improved considerably. After winning two run-off elections in Georgia, Democrats now control all three branches of government. Their majority in the Senate is razor thin, so their chances of passing new climate laws are small to non-existent. But they’ll still be able to get things done, using a workaround known as budget reconciliation, where the Senate agrees on changes in taxation and spending. Many of Biden’s key plans – including eliminating greenhouse gases from the power sector by 2035 – could be moulded to fit this process.

Biden will have popular support for bold action and the means to do it.

Biden has proposed US$1.9 trillion in economic stimulus spending that he hopes to implement almost immediately. This “American Rescue Plan” will be more focused on dealing with the virus, vaccinations and a struggling economy. But another spending plan will follow shortly afterwards with money for low-carbon infrastructure. Biden, once more cautious about government spending, has pointed to historically low interest rates as a reason to make big investments now. He’s promised to spend $2 trillion on dealing with climate change. The hope is that these investments will put many of the 11 million unemployed back to work, and help the country “build back better” after the shock and trauma of coronavirus and the Trump years.

But there’s a catch. To do anything, Democrats will be dependent on keeping their most conservative members in line. That includes Joe Manchin, a long-serving senator from coal country, West Virginia, who now controls the key Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Manchin has repeatedly made clear his opposition to climate legislation, shooting down the chances of a cap-and-trade bill passing back in 2009. Last week, he said: “You cannot eliminate your way to a cleaner environment,” expressing scepticism about Biden’s plan to mandate that energy companies use more wind and solar, as well as climate targets and the usefulness of government versus “the market”. But additional federal government support for West Virginia may help change his mind and find new jobs for some of the state’s former miners.

In the absence of major new climate legislation, Biden will have to rely a lot on the powers of the presidency. He will sign an executive order mandating that the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office. He will also cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project to carry crude oil from Alberta’s fields that President Trump restarted in 2019 after a veto by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Beyond that, we can expect him to do everything from tightening pollution standards and electrifying the government vehicle fleet to using financial regulation to mandate companies disclose their carbon emissions and plan to significantly reduce them. Climate-friendly companies and projects will find money easier to come by, and more money will be thrown at researching and developing new low-carbon technologies.

The president is in charge of foreign policy, and so Biden will try and resuscitate the US relationship with China, at least on climate. Cooperation will be essential if Paris targets are to be met and climate catastrophe avoided, but tensions between the countries will not magically disappear. The possible introduction of carbon border adjustments – taxes on imported goods produced using high-carbon energy – could complicate an already tricky trading relationship. 

Biden takes office with public concern about climate at an all-time high. He will have popular support for bold action and the means to do it. There are good reasons to be hopeful. But, if the Obama years showed us anything, it’s that these moments can be fleeting. The Republicans may win back Congress in 2022. President Trump could even run again in 2024. There is no time to lose.