The Environment Under Joe Biden

Recently, I wrote about the different environmental policies and beliefs of two presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Since then the election has been held and Joe Biden has been named the president-elect of the United States of America. So now that he’s president what is he going to do?

Joe Biden's plan to tackle climate change has been described as the most ambitious of any US president-elect yet.

Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement- the international pact designed to avoid dangerous warming of the Earth. Donald Trump pulled out of the deal after the Obama administration had signed in 2016, and during the election counting, Biden confirmed that reversing the decision would be one of his first acts as president.

Over the years here have been many proposals to create a better environment. Such as the Green New Deal presented by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. This deal would eliminate carbon emissions from most sources over a decade. The plan Biden wants to enact is much more moderate, but would still be one of the more progressive environmental strategies the U.S. has ever attempted.

Going Carbon Free

Biden has proposed making US electricity production carbon-free by 2035 and to have the country achieve net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

This means that any carbon emission is balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere by, for example, planting trees. To do this, Biden plans on spending 2 trillion dollars over four years to drive down emissions by upgrading four million buildings to make them more energy efficient. He wants to spend heavily on public transport, to invest in electric vehicle manufacturing and charging points and give consumers financial incentives to trade up to cleaner cars.

All of these options have one additional component apart from cutting carbon: they put people back to work. Andrew Light, a former senior climate official in the Obama administration, says Biden is focused on what lowers emissions and increases jobs at the same time.

"There will be a big push on electric vehicles, a big push on efficient buildings, both residential and offices, a big push on creating a new kind of civilian conservation corps and doing a lot of nature-based solutions on climate change."

Biden has also said he will not allow fracking on federal land. Fracking is a drilling process in which chemicals are injected into rocks to liberate natural gas and oil, and is controversial because of its environmental impact which I discussed in on my previous articles here. However, since about 90% of it occurs on state or private land, the vast majority of fracking will be unaffected.

The Paris deal sought to keep global temperatures "well below" 2.0C (3.6F), but in 2018 UN scientists clarified how much of a difference it would make to limit the rise to 1.5C.

The 1.5C target could prevent small island states from sinking beneath the waves, it could ensure that millions of people avoid the disasters of extreme weather, it could limit the chances of an ice-free Arctic in the Summer.

Scientists say that Biden's goal of reaching net zero emissions by mid-century could have significant implications for the 1.5C target.

"With Biden's election, China, the USA, EU, Japan, South Korea - two thirds of the world economy and over 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions - would have [commitments toward reaching] net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century," says Bill Hare. Part of the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors the world's carbon cutting plans. For the first time ever, this puts the Paris Agreement's 1.5C limit within striking distance, he says.

Current Problems

There will be a Democrat in the White House, but the Republican Party currently controls the US Senate and has so far shown a marked reluctance to spend money on stimulating the economy, despite the pandemic.

That might change if - as some have forecast - a January run-off election in Georgia gives Democrats control of the Senate. But if not, there are still grounds for President-elect Biden to believe the upper house may be open to some of his climate plans. While Trump has taken a strident anti-climate approach, there has been a softening of rhetoric from some Republicans in the last couple of years. There are already precedents of co-operation to point to. In September, Democrats and Republicans co-operated on a bill to cut the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a family of gases commonly used as refrigerants. They include some of the most powerful greenhouse gases known to science. The same month, the Senate also passed a bill called the Bipartisan Wildlife Conservation Act, intended to improve species conservation and protect vital ecosystems.

Joe Biden also knows how to navigate the upper house; he was elected to the senate six times before serving as vice-president under Barack Obama.

If the president-elect can structure his plans so that they create jobs and new infrastructure, while also tackling carbon emissions, he may be able to find a way forward that works for both sides of the aisle.

Problems with the Supreme Court

If he fails to agree legislation with the Senate, President-elect Biden will have to issue executive orders, similar to the way that Presidents Obama and Trump overcame such obstacles. Trump used them to roll back dozens of environmental regulations on the production

It's expected that many of those Trump rollbacks will themselves be rolled back at the start of the Biden administration.

But the weakness of the executive approach is that it is open to legal challenges. President Obama had to use executive orders to try and implement a key climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, but they were blocked by the Supreme Court. If President-elect Biden goes down this route, the Supreme Court could present a potential stumbling block. The court would ultimately rule on any litigation over his climate proposals, and with the court's strong conservative majority, that could be a significant problem for Joe Biden.


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