Climate back as top White House priority as Biden reverses Trump’s ‘harmful laws’

Early intent from US President Joe Biden on climate change has been loud and clear but will it translate to long-term action

Moments after he was sworn in as president, Joe Biden began the process of getting the US back on the Paris Agreement table. It will take 30 days to formalise the re-entry. Biden also signed sweeping executive orders reversing Trump’s rollback of more than 100 environmental regulations. Climate, a word that had been erased from official websites during Trump’s time, has become a top priority at the White House, second only to COVID-19.  The Biden administration vows to “meet the demands of science, while empowering American workers and businesses to lead a clean energy revolution.”

To tackle Trump administration’s “harmful policies,” Biden revoked Trump’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which aimed to transport crude oil from Canada. The pipeline was rejected by Obama and then approved by Trump.

Gina McCarthy, Biden’s national climate adviser, said the pipeline didn’t fit into the Biden administration’s plans to aggressively address climate change and grow jobs in the clean energy sector. Biden also ordered a review of  the Trump administration’s downsizing of national monuments, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears – lands considered sacred to Native Americans. Environmental groups had sued the government when the boundaries were redrawn in 2017 to tap the lands’ potential for coal mining and oil and gas drilling.

Trump’s controversial decision to allow commercial fishing at a marine conservation area off the New England coast is also slated to be blocked. Biden has also put a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in what had been virgin Arctic wilderness and ordered federal agencies to start looking at tougher mileage standards and other emission limits again. Biden is expected to set tougher rules for fuel efficiency in cars and trucks.

According to the executive order provided by the Biden’s transition team, the sweeping plan is to scrutinise regulations taken during the past four years that were “harmful to public health, damaging to the environment, unsupported by the best available science, or otherwise not in the national interest.” According to a government memo seen by Reuters, Biden will sign more executive orders focused on combating climate change on January 27, to reverse Trump’s anti-environmental rollback. The new announcements include an “omnibus” climate change order of a “series of regulatory actions to combat climate change domestically” and the announcement of a US-hosted climate leaders’ summit on Earth Day, April 22.

Will Biden be able to get Congress to withdraw dirty fossil fuel subsidies in the form of tax breaks?

Rolling back Trump’s rules is the easier task. But withdrawing tax breaks that allow companies to produce oil, gas and coal more cheaply will require Congress legislation. Lawmakers say any standalone legislation ditching the tax breaks is treated as dead-on-arrival by Republicans. With a 50-50 split senate, chances of passing a tax package are slim. That is because moderate Democrats from fossil fuel producing states, like Senators Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee, could block the move.

Subsidies in form of tax breaks are estimated to amount to $15 billion a year. The non-profit Environmental and Energy Study Institute puts them at $20 billion annually. The healthcare costs linked to pollution from fossil fuels put the subsidies even higher. The US tax break, called intangible drilling costs, allows producers to deduct a majority of their costs from drilling new wells. It is estimated that withdrawing it could generate $13 billion for the public coffers over 10 years. Another, the percentage depletion tax break, which allows independent producers to recover development costs of declining oil gas and coal reserves, could generate about $12.9 billion in revenue over 10 years.

Any bill to reform taxes for the fossil fuel sector will also face heavy resistance from lobbyists, who may argue that wind and other non-fossil energy sources also receive substantial taxpayer support. The American Petroleum Institute, the country’s biggest oil and gas lobby group, will “advocate for a tax code that supports a level playing field for all companies regardless of economic sector,” Frank Macchiarola, a senior vice-president at the industry group, told Reuters.

Walk the talk? Biden’s campaign pledge for net zero emissions by 2050

Biden’s campaign pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and plans for a $1.7 trillion investment in a green recovery from the Covid crisis, would reduce US emissions in the next 30 years by about 75 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide or its equivalents. According to a Climate Action Tracker analyses, this reduction would be enough to avoid a temperature rise of about 0.1°C by 2100.

The US is responsible for 15% of global carbon emissions, second to China. It promised to pay $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund to help poor countries, of which $2 billion remains unpaid. Under Biden, that money may finally be paid. The world expects the US to commit to cut CO2 emissions by 45-50% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels and overall emissions to zero by 2050. The world is expecting government action and some law at the US Congress on emission reductions. Trump’s renegade stance helped countries like Australia, Saudi Arabia and Brazil to brazenly violate climate norms.

Biden has promised to devote hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus spending to low-carbon economic growth. Global leaders are looking for a global reset to green recovery and sustained US support for multilateralism.

Faith Birol of IEA said about half of the emissions cuts needed to put the world on a path to net zero by 2050 can be achieved only through innovative technologies and the US can lead the world to push for clean technology innovation.

The UK, hosts of the 26th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 26), hope to steer all leading economies to a long-term pledge of reaching net zero emissions around 2050, and to bring forward national plans setting out emissions reductions. Biden plans to host his own major summit, to take place this spring, in the run-up to COP 26.

Experts say Biden’s clear pro-climate stance internationally, will have a far reaching impact in reducing global emissions than just the contributions from the US alone. The US will have a multiplier effect on other global economies.

Biden, in his inauguration speech, mentioned restoring America’s standing in the world and leading by example, which experts say also is his attempt to position the country as a global leader in clean energy and jobs. He is expected to boost solar and wind energy through budget allocations and infrastructure bills.

French president Emmanuel Macron welcomed Biden to the Paris accord with a tweet. Biden is expected to mobilise the climate investment both at home and globally. The Senate mood today clearly favoured that move with majority leader Chuck Schumer saying, “This Senate will forcefully, relentlessly, and urgently address the greatest threat to this country and to our planet – climate change.” Biden won the election with a clear climate mandate. But as we are seeing with terrifying frequency in these past few years, when it comes to climate issues, actions definitely speak louder than words.

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