Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Biden-Harris Cabinet Picks Show Shift to Low-Carbon Economy

By Kate Zerrenner

The Biden-Harris transition team has laid out four priorities in their Build Back Better platform for their incoming administration: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equality and climate change. Arguably, those four priorities are intertwined, and addressing climate change in a just and equitable way will move the needle on all of them. The incoming administration has already picked an economic team with an eye on climate change and climate justice, and the recent cabinet picks for the energy and transportation are the latest team members to have a role in crafting a climate agenda.

An DOE pick that shows a focus on a clean energy future

The Biden-Harris team has tapped Jennifer Granholm (shown above), former Governor of Michigan, to lead the Department of Energy (DOE). Beyond being only the second woman to hold the position since the agency’s inception in 1977, she has been a vocal proponent of transitioning U.S. industry into a clean energy economy. In particular, she has experience with the auto industry and was governor during the auto bailout in 2009. Expertise in and relationships with the auto industry will be important as national priorities will encourage more electric vehicles (EVs) and charging stations. Further, it creates opportunities for job growth in those sectors, paving the way for a potential rejuvenation of Rust Belt economies.

Granholm’s stance on projects such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines has won her praise from the various environmental groups. “Her selection would mark progress toward a cabinet capable of delivering on climate and environmental justice,” Greenpeace said in a public statement. “Jennifer Granholm has forcefully spoken out against both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and advocated for shifting investment from oil and gas to renewable energy solutions. Thats the kind of leadership the Department of Energy has been sorely missing.”

The largest share of DOE’s budget goes to its nuclear programs, but the department also has jurisdiction over fossil energy, renewable energy, energy efficiency and electricity. The Biden-Harris ticket pledged to reach net-zero emissions in the U.S. by 2050, and that will not be possible without the engagement of all facets of the energy sector. A critical component of the department’s work is in research and development and deployment (RD&D): both in the national laboratories across the country that it manages as well as in the technical assistance and funding it gives to states for a wide range of projects. And while the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from the electric sector was a policy driven by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), close coordination with DOE is essential to make any successor to that plan work.

For transportation, looking beyond merely automobile emissions

Former presidential candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is set to be the next Secretary of Transportation. As mayor, he advocated for more rail transit and the deployment of EVs and related infrastructure; as a presidential candidate, he spoke often about climate change and infrastructure. He would also be the youngest Biden-Harris cabinet member and the first openly LGBTQ cabinet secretary in history.

During his presidential campaign, Buttigieg's climate action platform included calls for ending subsidies to fossil fuel producers, net-zero emissions for all vehicles - including heavy trucks, ships and aircraft - and setting a price on carbon.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and railways. When we think of emissions, we correctly tend to think of the emissions that come from driving and operating vehicles.

Pete Buttigieg is the Biden-Harris team's pick to lead DOT
Pete Buttigieg is the Biden-Harris team's pick to lead DOT (Image credit: Gary Riggs/Wiki Commons)

But there is another component that is often left out of the conversation: the emissions related to construction and maintenance. State DOTs receive huge sums from the federal agency through several different mechanisms, and those funds have, in the past, been tied to policies  that have taken priority at the federal level.

For example, in 2008, DOT sponsored research into the climate impacts on transportation infrastructure and the agency subsequently directed states to operationalize climate change considerations in their state highway plans. It is likely that the Biden administration will require climate-related efforts to again be tied to federal funding. 

The Biden-Harris team’s priorities: tying it all together

The largest connection between these two agencies is the future of electric vehicles, with both having a stake in the development and deployment of the technologies and infrastructure - through RD&D funding, technical assistance, and policy directives tied to assistance. But there is another throughway; climate change is a critical component to the industries overseen by both agencies. Transportation and electricity are the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the U.S., at 28 and 27 percent, respectively. The EPA will also play a role as that is the agency that sets vehicle emissions standards.

Any attempt to meet a net-zero target will require considerable work by both agencies. Further, with a transition to a clean energy economy, both sectors will need to help train and support workers for that new economy. Moving from fossil fuels and traditional methods of construction and operation to clean energy and sustainable infrastructure jobs will mean further coordination with such agencies as the Department of Labor as well.

Tackling climate change will require the engagement of every aspect of the American economy and government, but that also means opportunities to shift to more efficient, cleaner ways of doing things. With an eye on meeting a net-zero emission goal, DOE and DOT can help build and maintain transportation and energy infrastructure to be more resilient to the climate change effects we already experience while at the same time, use more sustainable means and methods that won’t add to the emission tally. Energy efficiency - in both transportation and electricity - means using less energy (and thus reducing emissions) to perform the same task.

With climate action in mind, these two departments and their secretaries could provide an efficient blueprint for a Biden-Harris climate action plan that could help reduce emissions, build resilience and create new job opportunities.

Image credit of Jennifer Granholm: TechCrunch/Wiki Commons

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner