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21 January 2021updated 05 Oct 2023 8:42am

Are climate campaigners getting too excited about Joe Biden?

Questions remain over whether the US president can get his ambitious climate agenda through Washington's legislative gridlock.

By Dave Keating

While the world watched in horror at the insurrection in Washington on 6 January, climate campaigners could see a glimmer of hope. At the same time, news broke that Democrats had won both Senate run-off races in Georgia. The result will mean Joe Biden has a Congress completely under Democratic control, opening up possibilities for climate action that would not have been available with a Republican Senate.

During the presidential campaign, Biden outlined the most ambitious climate agenda of any would-be US president in history, with a headline target of reducing emissions to net zero by 2050. “We have this very big change with the outcome of the elections in Georgia,” says Wendel Trio, director of campaign group Climate Action Network Europe. “Up till now most people were not expecting the US to come up with strong legislation, but rather that Biden would use presidential actions.”

But climate campaigners also remember Barack Obama’s first two years in office, in which he also had a Democratic House and Senate. He proposed a far-reaching climate bill that would have created a cap-and-trade system similar to the EU’s Emissions Trading System. But he chose to spend his political capital instead on healthcare reform, and abandoned the climate push after right-leaning Democrats from coal states objected. In the end all of Obama’s climate actions had to be done by executive agencies because nothing could pass through Congress. Many were easily undone by the Trump administration.

Biden, who likely also only has two years of congressional control, will face the same limitations. Even during those two years, much legislation can be killed by a Republican objection that covers just 40 per cent of the Senate. Even without the filibuster, the Democrats’ majority is too narrow to push through more controversial policies such as a carbon tax or emissions trading. Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who once put out a campaign ad with a video of him shooting Obama’s cap-and-trade bill, will oppose such climate measures, as will Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema.

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Biden was the most climate-ambitious presidential candidate in history, but this is faint praise given the issue didn’t reach the top of the American political agenda until recently. Even now, only 4 per cent of US voters named climate change as their top priority in the recent presidential election.

The pandemic and civil unrest, the main concerns of voters, will draw much of Biden’s attention. And Biden’s climate plans still have little in the way of detail. It is still unknown what he will set as America’s emissions reduction target for 2030, due by the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow at the end of this year. But it is near-certain that it won’t be as ambitious as the EU’s target, recently raised to 55 per cent. “Obviously, 55 per cent won’t be possible for the US at this moment, but people are looking at something around 40 per cent,” says Trio.

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Biden has declined to support the Green New Deal championed by Democrats further to the left such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, although his Green Investment Plan contains many common elements.

The centrepiece of Biden’s $2trn climate plan is a pledge to achieve carbon-free electricity by 2035. But how to get there? Biden’s plan calls for establishing a “technology-neutral Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard for utilities and grid operators”. That sounds like legislation introduced by Oregon Democratic senator Ron Wyden in 2019 that would combine dozens of federal energy-related tax incentives into a single technology-neutral, performance-based clean energy tax credit. Wyden, the incoming chair of the Finance Committee, the Senate’s powerful tax-writing committee, can soon push to make the proposal law.

The Democrats’ slim majority will make major legislative breakthroughs difficult. Biden, like Obama, will likely resort to executive action to advance much of his climate agenda: a reality reflected in the experienced climate and energy team Biden is assembling to serve in his cabinet and at the White House. Maggie Thomas, a recent addition, who served as a top aide to Washington governor Jay Inslee’s climate-focused 2020 presidential campaign, will run the new Office of Domestic Climate Policy under national climate adviser Gina McCarthy.

Energy Monitor: Meet Joe Biden’s climate and energy team Part of New Statesman Media Group

Even before Biden is sworn in, climate campaigners have been dealt a potential early disappointment in Biden’s announcement on 14 January of his proposed $1.9trn Covid-19 stimulus plan. They are hoping that Biden will commit to ring-fencing a certain portion of the stimulus for climate investment, as the EU has done with its €750bn Next Generation EU Covid recovery fund, part of an overall €1.8trn budget, of which 30 per cent must be directed to climate investment. Biden did not mention any climate ring-fencing, though an announcement about that could be coming in February, according to reports.

International plans

The area where Biden is least restrained is in international action. He has brought the US back into the 2015 Paris Agreement on day one of his presidency, a process that should take about a month to complete. He will also push for more climate focus in the G7 and try to re-establish the now-moribund “Major Emitters for Climate Action” group of countries. He has signalled his seriousness by putting former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in charge of climate diplomacy.

But American re-engagement with the Paris Agreement may yield some results that climate campaigners don’t like, such as lessening the burden on developed countries for solving the climate crisis and putting more of the onus on the developing world. The US State Department was still engaging, at a low level, under the Trump administration until the US’s official departure from the Paris Agreement in November 2020. Some of its positions are unlikely to change.

Energy Monitor: EU sees climate opportunity with Biden inauguration Part of New Statesman Media Group

“We still saw the negotiating team under Trump advocating for strong rules and strong transparency,” says Jennifer Tollmann, a senior policy analyst at the climate think tank E3G. “They weren’t trying to dismantle the system by any means. A lot of that will stay I think, but they will have more capacity to negotiate with other countries.”

Of particular interest to US negotiators will be the rules around loss and damage, she says. The US is determined to not establish any system where big emitters have legal liability for the effects of climate change on vulnerable countries, and this is not expected to change under Biden.

The Biden administration may also be keen to push for gas as a transition fuel in Paris-adjacent multilateral discussions, such as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and the International Platform on Sustainable Finance. With the US more engaged in these talks, the consideration of gas as a transition fuel becomes more likely.

Biden walked a fine line during the campaign. He told voters he would not ban fracking, the technology that turned the US into the world’s top oil and gas producer. And during the second presidential debate with Donald Trump, he said the US will have to “transition away from the oil industry”, but added later, “we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time”.

Restrictions are coming for the industry. Biden’s climate plan calls for “banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters”. And he will surely direct officials at the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten methane regulations for the oil and gas sector.

US shale producers are eager to export the country’s excess gas to the rest of the world, in ships, in the form of liquified natural gas (LNG).

“It’s a big asset for the US, because they have a lot now and it’s way cheaper than probably everywhere else in the industrialised world,” says Lucio Miranda, president of ExportUSA, a consulting firm specialising in EU-US trade. “The US is getting more and more LNG export terminals ready, they are totally set on exporting.”

Energy Monitor: Biden faces climate dilemma over LNG exports to Europe Part of New Statesman Media Group

In the end, US climate policy both domestically and globally may not change as radically as climate campaigners are hoping, particularly in light of the pandemic challenges. But campaigners say they will continue to pressure the new administration to ensure it delivers on the campaign promises.

“There’s a lot in Biden’s plans that isn’t clear yet,” said Karen Orenstein, an American climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth, last November. “Campaigners, and progressives in Congress, are going to be pushing as hard as possible for a climate-driven implementation of policy.” But, she warned: “It may be a rough road. The Senate and the House are not easy places to get anything done.”