On 20 January 2021, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the USA. His election has boosted hopes for international efforts to protect the climate. But the recent riots in Washington DC underscore the fact that Biden will be taking the helm of a deeply divided nation – and climate protection promises to be a particularly thorny issue. While 87 percent of Democrats consider climate change to be a major threat, just 31 percent of Republicans share this view and the Republican ranks in the new Congress include some 130 climate change deniers. What are Biden's climate policy ambitions, and can he achieve them in the face of these looming challenges?
Trump's difficult legacy
When Donald Trump was sworn in as the President of the United States in January 2017, climate activists feared the worst. From the outset it was obvious that Trump had no intention of advancing climate policy. And, indeed, his record around climate protection issues has been dismal.
A climate policy rollback and a fossil fuel boom
Under Trump the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement and eliminated funding for international climate action. Trump has hollowed out the once mighty US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); according to the New York Times, his administration has scrapped 72 environmental regulations to date. These include numerous climate regulations, such as limits on carbon emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants and vehicles, and on methane emissions in oil and gas production. Nothing remains of the Climate Action Plan proposed under President Obama.
As Trump's term of office comes to a close, oil and gas producers are in a stronger position than ever, with environmental standards lowered and production levels up. And with foreign demand for oil and gas holding strong, exports have grown accordingly. The Trump administration threw its weight behind the oil and gas industry by opening up even more of America's public lands for resource extraction. American public lands can play an important role in climate protection, with the fossil resources extracted on these areas accounting for one quarter of all US emissions. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic alone, the US government has pledged over 72 billion US dollars in public funds to the fossil fuel industry.
Biden's plans – Making the USA a "clean energy superpower"
With his plan for a clean energy revolution, Biden has declared his intention to turn around US climate and energy policy. Biden's vision is for the USA to become a clean energy superpower.
National climate policy: Making the USA a climate frontrunner
Biden plans to make the American economy climate-neutral by 2050 and campaigned on the promise of delivering a carbon free power sector by 2035. A variety of measures are planned to support this goal, including nationwide energy efficiency standards and the promotion of clean energy across the electricity sector as well as new vehicle emissions standards that will accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles. Biden's climate policy plan also shows a willingness to explore the adoption of a national carbon price. Expanding research on energy technologies plays a key role in this strategy, as does stronger cooperation with Congress.
Biden's cabinet picks reflect his ambitious climate policy goals, with the President Elect set to nominate a cabinet with a strong track record of bipartisan cooperation. Jennifer Granholm is to serve as Biden's Secretary of Energy. The former governor of Michigan pushed through comprehensive measures for the promotion of renewable energies and energy efficiency in the face of considerable opposition during her term in office in a state where automotive manufacturing and industry are key drivers of the economy. As Biden's designated Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland is expected to reverse Trump's policy of promoting resource extraction in protected areas. Haaland would be the first Native American to occupy a cabinet secretary role in the United States. Stopping the destruction of protected areas, many of which are sacred sites for Native Americans, will be among her goals. During her time as a congresswoman Haaland has been a strong advocate for both environmental justice and climate protection.
Biden's candidate for the Department of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, adopted a climate action plan to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. This ambitious piece of climate policy is a remarkable achievement in the conservative, high-emissions state of Indiana. Finally, the nomination of veteran climate diplomat John Kerry as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate with a seat on the National Security Council sends a clear message on the important international dimension of climate policy.
International climate policy: USA to take the lead
Biden plans to re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement and resume U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund. He has also announced his intention to convene an international climate summit before May, where he hopes to encourage other high-emitting countries to raise their national ambitions in the run-up to the next UN climate conference.
Under Biden, the USA will only enter into new trade agreements with countries that have ambitious climate protection measures. During the election campaign, he also suggested that his administration could establish a so-called Border Carbon Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), i.e., tariffs on products imported from countries with less ambitious climate policies. Biden's climate policies will target China in particular and the President Elect has suggested that he will sign future agreements with China only if it ends export subsidies for coal and adopts stricter climate standards around investments in its "Belt and Road Initiative". The incoming administration also hopes to loosen China’s grip on developing countries by providing development funding for clean energy technologies.
Can the new climate plan succeed?
Biden's policy-making position improved significantly with the run-off elections in Georgia: in addition to its majority in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party now holds half of the seats in the US Senate. Should the chamber split 50:50 on a particular bill, US Vice President Kamala Harris will cast the tie-breaking vote in her role as the President of the Senate.
However, legislative proposals on controversial issues such as climate protection will still face an uphill battle. For one thing, Democratic senators seldom present a united front when it comes to climate protection. On top of this, a simple majority in the Senate is usually not enough to put a bill to a vote, which requires a supermajority of 60 votes. This means that the President will still have to rely on Republican votes in the Senate. This could be achieved with the help of the Climate Solutions Caucus, for example, a bipartisan committee for climate protection founded in 2019. Even among Republican members of Congress, the realization is dawning that they will lose votes among younger generations if they continue to block climate protection efforts. All this suggests that a climate bill would not necessarily be doomed to fail.
As the Obama Administration showed, the US President can actively pursue climate policy even without Congress. He could, for example, use Executive Orders to limit greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles or in oil and gas production. Trade policy also offers opportunities to bring about change. The Trump administration used the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to spark a trade war with China. This law gives the President the power to impose tariffs if trade relations pose a national security risk. Climate change, Biden has previously argued, is a security risk. Accordingly, Biden could use the same mechanisms to introduce tariffs on high-carbon imports at the border.
Opportunities for transatlantic cooperation on climate change
Biden's presidency is an opportunity for a fresh start. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have already expressed their willingness to engage in dialogue and there is no shortage of possible topics for climate policy cooperation.
A transatlantic climate and energy dialogue
The German government maintains energy dialogues with various industrialized nations with the aim of promoting energy transitions abroad. To date the energy dialogue with the USA has been limited to cooperation with various states such as California. The Biden presidency presents an opportunity to elevate this dialogue to the federal level, to extend its scope to climate issues and to bring together not just the departments of energy across the Atlantic, but also the respective executive institutions that work on transportation, environmental issues, and international relations. Both sides could benefit considerably from an exchange on common challenges such as sustainable mobility, green hydrogen, carbon pricing, and the coal exit and related structural changes. The dialogue could also become a driver for research cooperation focussing on the sustainable energy technologies favoured by Biden.
Promoting climate protection and energy transitions through international forums
A climate and energy dialogue of this kind could also be used by both countries to coordinate their efforts in international forums such as the G20, the G7, the Clean Energy Ministerial, and the International Solar Alliance. Progress in these climate policy forums is an important driver for the UN climate conferences and international climate protection measures.
Coordinating development cooperation
Closer ties between the EU and USA could also benefit international development cooperation. Biden plans to use a number of instruments for development cooperation to promote the growth of sustainable energy systems in partner countries. This approach speaks to both climate policy and geostrategic goals: Biden wants to prevent China from promoting fossil energy systems in its partner countries – a goal he shares with the EU. The US is dependent on the support of the EU as a strong partner as it seeks to steer China towards more climate-friendly international engagement, a step that will be crucial to achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
The Border Carbon Adjustment Mechanism and transatlantic cooperation
A Border Carbon Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is likely to be introduced in the EU within the next few years as part of the European Green Deal, and European politicians have already noted opportunities for transatlantic cooperation, with Biden's climate plan also including a border tax on carbon intensive imports. Similar measures failed in Congress during the Obama Presidency despite the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. But a coordinated transatlantic CBAM strategy could address Congress' criticism of a border tax as a protectionist and unilateral US climate protection commitment. It would also be an important signal on the international stage that the US and the EU are once again willing to work together to advance climate policy.
Biden's administration will inherit a climate and energy policy in shambles and a nation divided. Despite this, his government is expected to bring new momentum to international climate policy efforts. The Biden administration aims to bring the United States back into the Paris Agreement and to promote sustainable energy in developing countries. This could create numerous opportunities for cooperation between the US, Germany, and the EU. Biden will also set about rebuilding climate mitigation and adaptation policies at the national level. His plans for sustainable energy and climate protection are far-reaching and detailed and he has experienced policymakers on hand to achieve his goals. Climate protection will be at the heart of his agenda. Congress is and will remain a challenge for Biden's policy efforts. But his Cabinet picks and his own track record of bipartisan cooperation suggest that Biden might well succeed.