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What Biden could do on climate—even with a Republican Senate

The election hasn’t been called, but should Biden win but not control the Senate, he can still put us back in the Paris agreement—and push change via regulations and executive action.

What Biden could do on climate—even with a Republican Senate
[Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
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On November 4, Trump officially withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. If Biden wins, on his first day in office on January 20, he plans to rejoin it—a first step in setting the U.S. on a path to tackle climate change, which Biden has called the “number one issue facing humanity.”

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The election was a critical moment not just for the U.S., but for the rest of the world: With a second Trump term, and the U.S. responsible for more pollution than any other country but China, it would be very unlikely that emissions could have dropped enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But even with a Biden presidency, keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius will still be still a massive challenge. And it would be more so, if the Senate ends up in Republican control, pending the results of two runoff races in Georgia in January. Even if Democrats win both of those elections, their margin in the Senate will be slim. Instead of passing a massive climate plan, a future president Biden would most likely have to do most of the work via executive action.

“Even this ends up with Republicans maintaining a slim majority in the Senate, then much of President Biden’s ambitious climate agenda can be pursued through a couple of different avenues,” says Dan Lashof, the U.S. climate director for the nonprofit World Resources Institute. “First, there’s executive action.” After Biden rejoined the Paris agreement, he could begin to undo the 125 environmental rollbacks that Trump set in motion. “I think a day one activity is to issue executive orders to go about systematically reinstating critical environmental safeguards, and not just reinstating them where they were, but strengthening them,” he says.

Under the authority of the Clean Air Act, for example, Biden could reinstate the Obama-era clean car rules—which set targets for automakers to make cars more efficient, saving gas and cutting pollution—and then he could go a step further, setting new targets for electric vehicles. “Now’s the time to put in place a set of vehicle standards that move to 100% electric vehicles for new cars by 2035,” says Lashof. The executive order could be modeled on California, which recently set the same goal. Other executive orders could take on problems like methane leaks from pipelines, another significant source of emissions.

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As part of the Paris agreement, countries are expected to set new goals for slashing emissions before a meeting in November 2021; Biden would have to set an ambitious new target. Lashof says that cutting climate pollution 45-50% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, is “an ambitious but reasonable range” for the U.S. to commit to. Biden could also follow the example of other countries that have set goals to get to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century (including China, the world’s largest polluter, which plans to get to net zero by 2060). “Setting that long-term goal, I think, is important,” says Lashof. “And that should be part of a comprehensive executive order that President Biden issues to align a whole-of-government approach to tackling the climate crisis.”

Of course, the U.S. can get a lot farther with new laws. With an obstructionist Senate, that may be difficult. But there’s clear bipartisan support for some new climate work, including phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, a super-pollutant found in air conditioners. And parts of Biden’s big vision, for investing in a green recovery that could create millions of jobs, should also be achievable. “With two branches of government, the presidency and the House, committed to clean energy, there’s still a negotiation to be had,” Lashof says. “But there’s a lot of leverage in that negotiation to include priority investments in clean energy, both in emergency spending, and in longer-term infrastructure investments.” The timing is critical: To keep global warming under the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world has only about nine years left to cut emissions roughly in half.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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