Where next for US action on Climate Change?

During his election campaign, President-elect Joe Biden emphasised that climate change is an “existential threat to humanity”, promising that the United States would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office. He also outlined plans for $2 trillion investment into clean energy, to promote carbon-free electricity by 2035, and pledged to strengthen NASA’s earth sciences programme, to support studies on climate change, and strengthen funding and protections under the Endangered Species Act.

As a global superpower, the United States’ action on climate change is important, not only in reducing America’s own emissions, but also in providing global leadership to encourage other states to take the necessary measures to tackle their own footprint. President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Agreement reduced the incentive for other states to engage in collective action on climate change. To repair and minimise the impact of this decision, Biden has pledged to “lead a major diplomatic push” to raise nations’ ambition on climate change which, if effective, could have a significant impact on global emissions.

President Trump consistently downplayed the threat of climate change throughout his time in office, rolling back over 160 environmental pieces of legislation and, although US carbon emissions have reduced under President Trump – due to coal becoming less economically viable than other cleaner-burning fossil fuels – they have reduced at a significantly slower pace than under President Obama. It was expected that, during a second term, President Trump would have continued to promote growth in the United States fossil fuel industry and to prioritise the short-term performance of the US economy over tackling climate change.

Biden’s presidency will therefore represent a decisive step change. His policies are, however, not as ambitious as some fellow Democrats and climate campaigners would like. For example, Joe Biden has not pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and he does not oppose all fracking – instead opposing new oil and gas permitting on public lands and water. Taking an incremental and moderate approach has been an important aspect of his campaign’s success, but tensions between different wings of the party are likely to continue to grow.

The President-elect will also face a number of obstacles in executing his climate action plans. Most significantly, Biden’s ability to enact his campaign commitments on climate change is strongly contingent on the composition of the Senate. Due to run-offs in Georgia, this will not be determined until January. Without control of the Senate, Biden is likely to struggle to secure approval for much of his climate legislation, including approval for financial investments in clean energy. Even if he secures a slim majority, defections or abstentions on climate change policy by Democrats in gas and coal states could prevent him from passing significant climate change regulations. This would leave President Biden in the precarious position of relying on the use of executive orders.

Even Biden’s pledge to recommit to the Paris Climate Agreement, which can be joined without approval from the Senate, will require the Senate’s support, as it will need to be funded by commitments that must pass through the chamber. To rejoin, the US would need to submit a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) – a formal plan for cutting emissions. It may also be expected to fulfil previous commitments, including the $3 billion it pledged to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund in 2014. President Obama paid a $1 billion contribution towards this, but President Trump declined to pay the remaining $2 billion. Such financial commitments cannot be made through executive orders and instead must pass through the Senate.

More broadly too, in seeking to provide global leadership on climate change, Biden will have to restore global faith in the United States as a global actor. While many world leaders, including UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, have welcomed the possibilities that Joe Biden’s victory brings for international cooperation on climate change, many will remain sceptical about whether the US can truly fulfil its ambitions. Spain’s environment minister, Teresa Ribera, for example, has warned that “the recovery of (the United States’) credibility could take some time”. To provide the leadership necessary to persuade others, Joe Biden will therefore need to prove, once more, that the United States is a reliable, constructive partner on the world stage.

As such, while Biden’s victory over President Trump will strengthen the United States’ willingness to address climate change, the practical path to achieving its ambitions remains contested.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group