• John Khoo

Biden’s Bold Climate Charge: Realistic or Unworkable?

Updated: Jan 16

John Khoo gives an overview of Joe Biden’s proposed domestic and international climate goals, surveying possible political obstructions and suggesting legislative moves to make it reality.


President-elect Joe Biden’s bold climate pledges have been one of the hallmarks of his successful 2020 campaign. In contrast to Donald Trump’s weakening of environmental regulations during his 4-year term, several of which were implemented during the Obama Administration, Biden is projected to immediately restore policies ranging from methane emissions standards to air pollution guidelines in national parks, going above and beyond to ensure a “100% clean economy” with net-zero emissions by 2050.


With a split Senate and narrow Democrat majority in the House of Representatives, are Biden’s climate goals too far-reaching or do they stand a sizable chance in being implemented not just domestically but across the globe as well?


A packed list


Biden’s climate promises rest on a myriad of domestic moves tackling clean energy and carbon emissions, including setting milestone targets in Congress by the end of his first term, establishing legislation protecting low-income communities harmed by polluters and pumping $1.7 trillion of federal investments into clean energy over the next decade. Drawing from Biden’s armoury is his new hand-picked head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Michael Reagan, an EPA veteran with a proven track record to spearhead his ambitious climate goals.


Most boldly, however, are his interests in rallying an international charge to tackle China’s carbon emissions through its Belt and Road Initiative, specifically preventing subsidies on its coal exports and outsourcing of carbon pollution through the United Nations and other international bodies. China’s growing economic reach into Africa and Southeast Asia could mean significant opposition in the UN General Assembly should Biden attempt to exert the US’s influence there.


Leading the international charge


With this in mind, Biden will plant the United States back into the driving seat for tackling climate change in Glasgow next November. For the first time since the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement, countries will be reaffirming and revising their pledges towards climate change at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. President Trump most notably withdrew America from the Paris Climate Agreement in November, citing unfair economic burdens being placed on American businesses and workers. Biden is only expected to re-join it once he takes office, but also reform the IMF’s debt repayment priorities for development projects(placing projects with higher carbon impact at the back of the line) and offer alternative sources of low-carbon energy financing for Belt and Road Initiative countries.


Experts are not convinced, pointing out that China is well on its way to achieving its Paris Agreement benchmarks, beating the United States 3-to-1 on renewables invested. They suggest that the United States takes a co-operative approach in averting a climate crisis instead, noting that China’s support is cardinal being the top global carbon emitter. Additionally, China’s status as a hub for green tech would entail faster development of innovative renewables should there be cordial relations between both countries.


Bipartisan support – or opposition


In spite of Biden’s wide-ranging executive powers, there will be an extent to which he will wield them to bypass Congress should they block his proposed legislative changes. Republican opposition for the sake of opposition does not seem like it will subside anytime soon, particularly in the face of climate change policies where the GOP holds a hardline stance on fossil fuel support. Indeed, President Barack Obama only began to push hard on his proposed climate policies during his second term.. And even if he does decide to bulldoze his way through like Trump did with his rollbacks on the mileage standards for road vehicles, the Republican-majority Supreme Court will be standing in his way.


We may also see resistance from within his own party. The Green New Deal, a heavily-supported green package supported by the radical left including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pete Buttigieg, is not supported by Biden. Rather, his plan for a Clean Energy Revolution, while not identical, is inspired by it, developed through consultations with more progressive factions by the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force in a ditch for party unity during the 2020 Democrat Primaries.


Moderate approaches


Biden’s trademark ability to work on both sides of the aisle, however, may be his strongest bet of fulfilling his election promises. Opting for more moderate climate measures would gain the support of not only Washington but also industries as well. For instance, implementing federal requirements for renewables would overturn the complicated system of different state requirements on clean-energy generation, simplifying utility payments for businesses and households. Other easier moves may include raising energy-efficiency standards for electrical appliances, developing rules on how regulators report financial risks of climate change, or easing federal permits to build offshore wind farms. There is little need for Biden to worry about the implementation of a carbon tax with existing backing from numerous conservatives and business owners.


This approach however would require much care in the face of an increasingly polarised political theatre - trying to work down the middle might only end up alienating both Republicans and Democrats. With that said, taking a few pages from the Obama-era playbook while shaving off its extremities in the face of a Republican Supreme Court could form the backbone of Biden’s new approach towards a greener America. The rest will be down to his 36 years of experience garnering support from diametrically opposed political groups and countries.


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