President Biden’s Environmental Policy: Promising or Pitiful?

Clara Browne-Amorim
President Biden's Environmental Policy: Promising or Pitiful?
Cover by TNGO Illustrator Marija Sta

In the wake of a catastrophic year, nations and individuals have been forced to reassess where their priorities lie in lifestyle and policy. Having to sit at home has made many of us reconsider our previous direction, contemplating how much we can consider the fast-paced action of international, globalised life as progress. Some of these 21st century tensions erupted over the course of last year, in particular in the United States, this including the Black Lives Matter protests, the voting out of President Trump, and the election of Joseph R. Biden as 46th President of the United States.

Against the backdrop of these human concerns, 2020 also brought on an onslaught of environmental disasters: with wildfires engulfing large parts of Australia and Los Angeles and heavier rainfall causing thousands of deaths via monsoons, typhoons and flash floods in Russia, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, China, the Philippines, Myanmar, Nepal, and, unfortunately, many more (a complete list of environmental disasters over 2020 can be found here). Many are frustrated with the lack of environmental concern in current US politics, which was exacerbated by the election of Trump in 2016 and his immediate departure from the 2014 Paris Climate Agreement. With the end of Trump’s administration, how will President Biden differ from his predecessor?

President Biden's Environmental Policy: Promising or Pitiful?
Protests Against the KXL Pipeline, 2011
Source: Gethen 2017

Biden’s first day in office has already promised a momentous change of tide: the administration plans to re-join the Paris Climate Accords and revoke the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed oil pipeline which would have ran from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. He has promised to support federal government scientists who have previously been side-lined by a political atmosphere of climate change denial, regulate methane emissions and join the global movement to end the use of warming hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

These immediate changes, though they are significant in the shadow of Trump’s environmental neglect, largely replicate President Obama’s environmental efforts. Newer policy changes include the Green New Deal, which Biden has declared his support for on his official website, and a promise to achieve 100% clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050. These economic policies have the potential to change the landscape of the USA’s employment, industrial and economic landscape, however, despite their bipartisan support from the public, conservative lawmakers and legislators will likely serve as a significant barrier to Biden’s plans. If the proposed plans are successful, however, Bill Hare, a member of the Climate Action Tracker (a monitor of the world’s carbon cutting efforts) has said:

“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”.

President Biden's Environmental Policy: Promising or Pitiful?
Cumulative CO2 Emissions 1850-2011 (% of World Total)
Source: Washington Post/ World Resources Institute

Much of this progress is dependent on Biden’s ability and motivation to continue this climate agenda. Political appointments such as Michael Regan, a graduate of environmental and earth science with a dedicated employment history in the field, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that there is an undeniable change in priority, socially and politically, for the US. This is a vital change as the US is historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for 27% of global warming, more than any other country in the world. This is according to the World Resources Institute analysis, which found that from 1850 to 2011, the US emitted more carbon dioxide than all other countries: all of the nations of the European Union combined fell at 26% total, and China produced 11%.

Though the country is responsible for a salient chunk of the current climate landscape, Biden’s priorities are also being affected by the national situation he has inherited from Trump. Biden’s preference for science, whilst it is vitally applicable to the environmental crisis, is also essential for cutting down the US’ Covid-19 cases. Biden has tied the Covid-19 recovery to the economy:

“If we act now our economy will be stronger in both the short- and long-run,” he said. “That’s what economists left, right and centre are telling us.”

The central facet of Biden’s plan to address the Covid-19 recovery is a $1.9tn relief package called the American Rescue Plan, which includes $1,400 direct payments, more generous unemployment benefits and billions for a national vaccination program. He has outlined not just a pro-science stance, but also a pro-union one as he pushes towards the restoration of collective bargaining powers and a $15 hourly minimum wage. This economic recovery push is also substantiated by an extension on the federal pause on evictions, as well as a Covid-19 food programme targeting children and families who would have previously been eligible for free school meals.

All of these executive orders show an administration full of action and eager to invest into economy-boosting state-funded programmes. Combined with a epistemologically-minded agenda, Biden’s current plans show significant promise for a progressive climate plan. However, any more radical advances are clearly being saved for after the pandemic so, looking forward from 2021, the US looks like it will change its tune on climate change demoralisation. Though there is a mountain of progress to be made, Biden’s administration appears to be pointing in the right direction. Watch this space.

  • Will the Biden administration be able to carry out their environmental policy plan in an evenly split Senate and Democrat Congress after the anti-climate change atmosphere created by Trump?
  • Will Biden’s policy plans be enough and fast enough to achieve substantial environmental progress?
  • Will other world leaders without a current environmental plan choose to follow Biden’s example, e.g. the UK and Brazil?

Further Reading

Anadolu Agency, Environmental disasters across world in 2020

Biden Administration, Climate Plan

The Guardian, Biden to ‘hit ground running’ as he rejoins Paris climate accords

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