- The Biden-Harris Administration got off to a productive start, adding 19 new environmental protections and overturning 29 environmental rollbacks initiated by the previous administration. These early wins primarily focused on easy-to-achieve targets. The next round of measures, such as tightening efficiency standards, will prove more challenging, but still feasible. A third tier of hard-to-achieve measures such as curbing methane emissions beyond 2016 standards might not be realised in this term.
- The new NDC (50-52% below 2005 by 2030) is the flagship initiative of Biden’s climate policy, includes significant measures, such as initiating the process to join the Kigali Agreement on HFCs. Reaching the NDC will require tremendous willpower and political capital from the White House that may only be available in 2021. With mid-term elections in 2022 and the beginning of the next presidential race in 2023, focus will inevitably shift towards domestic politics and short-term political gains.
- Given the current composition of Congress, executive action and – to a limited degree – legislation within budget reconciliation are the primary vehicles for climate policy in the United States. However, to establish trust with and long-term commitment from both businesses and international partners, the US will have to take conventional legislative action in the form of dedicated bills.
100 days of climate pragmatism
The Biden-Harris Administration has managed to cover a significant number of campaign pledges on climate and environmental policy within the first 100 days, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Administration is working hard both to contain the virus through vaccination and to rebound the economy, at home and globally.
Given these serious competing issue areas, it is not surprising that the US approach to environmental policy is first and foremost pragmatic. The objective is to get as many high-impact measures as possible rolling, subject to the constraints of policymaking and politics in Washington DC.
With the current composition of Congress, notably the lack of a solid 60-count majority or even a reliable 50-count vote in the Senate, climate and environmental policy is limited to executive action. If 50 votes can be secured in the Senate, budget reconciliation presents another viable option for acts with budget relevance.
In addition to these constraints, a new complication has resurfaced this year in the shape of earmarking, i.e., funding for specific purposes included at the request of a Legislator. It remains to be seen how significant the climate and environmental burden of earmarking will turn out to be in practice. However, it is likely that the process will direct funding from where it could achieve most to where it is politically opportune.
The White House has so far pushed out a significant number of executive actions on climate change:
- Seven additional measures are including the new NDC. Addressing climate risk and climate finance, task forces or working groups at the Departments of Defense and Interior, transitioning federal vehicles, and establishing climate change as a national security priority.
- Rolling back six prior executive actions such as the decision to re-join the Paris Agreement, to re-establish the Clean Power Plan, and to sign the Kigali Agreement.
While the steps taken by the Administration are important and noteworthy, the next round of re-regulation will take longer and require more work in the process. A third tier of complex reforms might be too time-consuming and resource-intense to get finalized within this presidential term.
Implementing measures to set the US on course to reach its NDC goal, relying almost exclusively on executive action and select budgetary measures, will require significant political capital and willpower. The Administration will be tempted to push the boundaries of what can be considered budgetary, leaving it to the Senate parliamentarian to decide on a case-by-case basis. The mid-term elections in 2022 will shift focus from Washington DC to state and regional matters. Emphasis on immediate gains, in terms of job creation and economic rebound, will make it harder to secure support in Congress for additional measures, except for low-hanging fruit and subsidies.
The Biden-Harris Administration will be judged primarily based on their actions in 2023. To keep the window open for executive and possibly even legislative action in 2023 climate policy proposals will need to have a short payback period and deliver results immediately.
Thus, 2021 is the best moment in this presidential term for bold US climate action. As fate would have it, this coincides with a significant global moment in climate policy. The first review cycle, or ratcheting up, of NDCs under the Paris Agreement is to be finalized at COP26 in Glasgow. Herein lies a promising opportunity for the Biden-Harris Administration, but also a threat. Anything not at least initiated this year may have to be postponed until the next term, especially if new crises emerge.
The US presidential system, currently a boon for climate action, can become a bane, leaving climate policy to be done, or undone, at a whim.
To avoid constant whiplash between climate-progressive and climate-regressive forces, actual legislation is the only long-term way forward. Only broad support in the legislature can instil trust in the reliability of the US course for businesses, investors and international allies alike.
It will be paramount for civil society to keep the pressure up during 2021 and to support the new administration in their quest to get the most out of this year in terms of ambitious, lasting climate policy.