President Joe Biden addresses the Leaders' Summit on Climate, Earth Day 2021
Biden Reasserts US Climate Leadership
Climate change has been a major focus of the Biden administration from the very start, much to the consternation of oil and gas CEO’s and the relief of activists. As we reported in February, the president announced the US would rejoin the Paris Agreement and cancel the XL pipeline on his first day in office and one week later issued a flurry of additional executive actions, from halting the leasing of federal lands for oil and gas drilling to re-establishing Obama-era emission standards. That might have been it in terms of domestic action, given Republican intransigence and the Senate filibuster, but a favorable ruling from the parliamentarian will allow his infrastructure bill to be passed with 50 votes (and the Vice President's), and the plan’s chances are now promising, at least as of this writing.
The American Jobs Plan, released at the end of March and now priced at $2.3 trillion over ten years, deals with an enormously wide range of infrastructure problems, but climate change is addressed throughout. It would weatherize and retrofit million of buildings, making them more energy efficient; stimulate the creation of clean technologies with a huge increase in research and development; create a “Climate Civilian Corps”; and help coal and oil industry workers transition to new work, in particular the capping and cleanup of old drilling sites and abandoned mines.
The plan’s main climate focus, however, is on automobiles and electric power plants, the two greatest sources of greenhouse gas pollution, and it aims for nothing less than a transformation of both. Here are just the major proposals:
$174 billion in tax credits and other incentives to encourage the manufacture and building of electric cars;
$100 billion to update and modernize the electric grid and build more transmission lines from wind and solar plants;
$46 billion for the federal government to buy fleets of electrical vehicles.
$14 billion for the construction of half a million electric charging stations.
Even if it doesn’t all get passed, the American Jobs Plan certainly sends a powerful signal to the rest of the world that the new administration is committed to fighting climate change. (That said, many environmentalists have called for much more to be done, given the full dimensions of the climate emergency.)
Next up was a two-day Earth Day summit of world leaders. The president invited forty world leaders, those from the 17 countries that emit the great majority (80%) of all carbon emissions, as well as others from nations that are being especially impacted by climate change. The major goals were to “galvanize efforts” to keep warming to 1.5ºC, the critical threshold, and to encourage public and private finance involvement in leading the transition to renewable energy.
Most crucially, Biden announced a new, strikingly ambitious goal of 50-52% emission reductions by 2030, roughly double the goal set by President Obama in 2013. This was beyond the expectations of many analysts, and a clear challenge to other leading economies to step up. All eyes were on China and India (the first and third largest emitters, with the US in between), but neither changed its commitments. Still, it was noteworthy that China (and Russia) participated at all, given the difficult state of relations between them and the US, and it’s hoped that China will have more to say in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November. It’s at that conference that all signatories to the Paris Agreement are required to update their reduction commitments.
It’s been a startling change from the Trump administration, but it remains to be seen how successful Biden’s approach will be in the long term. His stress on the economic benefits and job growth potential of addressing climate change (et al) is smart politically. He’s framed the challenge as a huge opportunity for economic growth, and he’s let other countries (especially China) know that the US is not going to be left behind. But it's hard to believe it will be sufficient to hold global warming to 1.5ºC. After all, we have only until 2030 to reduce world emissions by 45%. Won’t a tax on carbon and further regulation be required, both here and overseas? While these questions and more remain to be answered--and the administration certainly hasn’t ruled out more regulatory action--for now the stress is on the economic opportunities of climate action.