A new presidential administration can mean fresh priorities, redefined global relationships, and a new direction for federal policy. That will certainly be the case with President-elect Joe Biden, who is poised to bring a fresh take on global and domestic issues such as climate action, renewable energy and immigration.
Citizens and allies alike are hungering for the country to reenter the world stage as a leader in the fight against climate change. “Biden’s victory massively enlarges the envelope of the possible for COP26 in Glasgow. The world’s biggest economy is back,” Peter Betts, an associate fellow at the international affairs think tank Chatham House, told Carbon Brief.
It was a day after the election that the United States officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a process that President Donald Trump’s team initiated a year earlier. Despite the president’s fervency on the matter, this withdrawal doesn’t exactly align with the outlook of the nation. Most Americans value global cooperation in reestablishing a healthy climate. In a 2017 study from Yale, almost 70 percent of registered voters said the U.S. should participate in the Paris Agreement.
Biden plans to rejoin the Agreement on day one of his presidency, as outlined in his “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice,” what many see as the most ambitious climate action plan ever embraced by a United States executive branch. Among Biden’s other action items are achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and developing regional climate resilience plans.
Under a Trump presidency, Americans and non-Americans alike have expected a hands-off approach to climate change, coupled with isolationist tendencies. Global leaders have expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of renewed cooperation and leadership from the U.S. on environmental issues.
“I think now with President Biden in the White House in Washington, we have the real prospect of American global leadership in tackling climate change,” Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, told the Associated Press.
What exactly would be expected of the new president? In a recent press call, environmental think tank World Resources Institute detailed the values of President-elect Biden’s climate plan and some of the missing details necessary for successful climate action and energy transition.
The devil is in the details in regaining footing on climate action. For Biden, this means fleshing out his climate plan. One example of a helpful detail, WRI says, would be establishing a 2030 emissions target. The Institute recommends cutting total greenhouse gas emissions by 45 to 50 percent, which its leaders say would be both manageable and impactful.
Another urgent piece of the puzzle, Helen Mountford, vice president of climate and economics for the WRI, said, will be submitting an updated national commitment well before the COP26 climate conference scheduled for November 2021. Not only would spelling out a national commitment benefit the international community, but it would also inform and guide all the actions the U.S. takes toward its long-term goals, Mountford said.
Also important to note, Mountford added, is how the field has changed since the Barack Obama administration, for which Biden acted as vice president. Some countries have stepped up significantly while the U.S. pressed the snooze button these past four years. This fall, China, by far the largest carbon polluter in the world (almost twice as polluting as the U.S., second on the list), announced a target to zero its emissions before 2060. Japan, South Korea and South Africa are all aiming for 2050. That’s not to mention the corporations and investors that are shifting toward renewability and a circular economy.
A Biden presidency should respect the progress nations have made and step up to this higher plate, Mountford said. To keep the momentum going, she recommends the administration increase financial support to developing countries seeking a low-carbon economic transition.
Most influential to a green economy, Dan Lashof, director of WRI United States said, will be taking very specific restorative actions quickly. Some of these steps — which Lashof also outlines in a 10-point plan — include rebuilding the capacity of federal environmental agencies, using executive authority to move forward with emissions rollbacks, creating a clean car standard, and building on a pattern of bipartisan legislation already rolling through Congress.
Lashof also recommends that Biden add four tools to his belt — setting standards for pollution, investing in jobs and sustainable infrastructure, rectifying pollution burdens falling on people of color, and pricing carbon pollution. He emphasized that the president-elect has no time to waste — Biden must prioritize the environment on day one, as he has promised to do.
Simply withdrawing from the Paris Agreement could have economic consequences for the U.S., this despite President Trump claiming he would save American jobs by exiting. Economists have cited the rising costs of climate-related disasters and the falling costs of renewable energy and meeting the demands of the Agreement.
Likewise, reentering the Paris Agreement has the potential to jump start the economy at a time of lasting economic hardship. The United Nations Foundation cites $26 trillion in global economic benefits through 2030 by transitioning to a low-carbon economy and potentially 24 million jobs created worldwide.
Biden’s plan, motivation and direction are promising for global interests, as well as domestic desires and economic needs. Time will tell how the new president executes his aspirations.
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