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Image: picture-alliance/J. Lo Scalzo
Nature and EnvironmentUnited States of America

Will US action put focus back on climate?

Martin Kuebler | Tim Schauenberg
November 9, 2020

With Joe Biden headed to the White House, environmental campaigners are hoping the US will get back on track and renew its commitment to fighting climate change. But some analysts fear it might be too late.


In his first address to the nation as the president-elect on Saturday, Joe Biden presented a vision of hope for the future of the United States.

The Democrat spoke optimistically about the Americans who have called on his incoming administration to "marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time," which include efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic, increase prosperity and "save the climate."

Read more: Biden pledges to restore US global cooperation and leadership — but can he?

Biden's climate plan is backed with some concrete pledges, including $2 trillion (€1.7 trillion) to help wean the US energy sector off fossil fuels over the next 15 years and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

He is also determined to bring back Obama-era environmental regulations eliminated by President Donald Trump with a flurry of executive orders in his first days in office — including one that would see the US rejoin the global 2015 Paris climate agreement, which it officially left just last week.

Biden's 'ambitious' plans could have far-reaching effects

Environmental analysts are hopeful of what a Biden presidency could do for the planet. Niklas Höhne of the NewClimate Institute, based in Germany, told DW that Biden's climate plans were "very ambitious."

"The electricity sector is to have net-zero emissions by 2035 — the entire electricity sector. If you compare that with Germany, where coal power is supposed to run until 2038 — and that's still far from being CO2 neutral," he said.

Read more: US Green Party: 'There's more at stake than getting rid of Trump'

Höhne added that Biden's 2035 goal makes economic sense, in a country suffering from a coronavirus slowdown and where about half the states are already moving in a similar direction on renewable energy.

"This is something that he can really drive forward. He has the … economic situation on his side — it's simply cheaper in the long run," said Höhne. The renewables sector is becoming increasingly affordable and has become a major employer in the US. In 2019, nearly 3.3 million people worked in clean energy, outnumbering fossil fuel workers three to one, according to environmental business group E2.

A large solar farm in the Mojave Desert in California near Primm, Nevada
Renewable energy is booming in the US, including solar energy in Nevada...Image: Getty Images
Wind turbines in a field beside a highway in Palm Springs, California
...and wind energy in California.Image: picture-alliance/Design Pics/I. Grant

The ongoing pandemic has been a major part of Biden's platform. The president-elect has promoted an economic recovery plan tied to tackling climate change, with investments in renewable energy and climate-resilient infrastructure, sectors which stand to benefit under a Biden administration, according to Nigel Green, head of the global financial consulting firm deVere.

But with the balance of power in Washington still undecided — Democratic control of the US Senate will be determined in two Georgia runoff elections in January — and with millions of Americans still dependent on fracking, coal and oil production, Biden's goals are expected to face plenty of resistance.

Read more: Climate crisis struggles to influence voters

"I don't want to gloss over how difficult it will be to solve these problems, especially if Congress fails to step up and do its part," said Rachel Cleetus, policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an analysis posted on Saturday.

"But now we have a president who has said he will actually work to address these problems, instead of one who lies relentlessly about their very existence, while actively making them worse."

In her analysis, she outlined a list of actions the incoming Biden administration should take within its first 100 days in office. These included directing all federal agencies to develop climate action plans, and the creation of a White House agency focused on overseeing a "fair transition plan for coal workers" and their communities.

Infographic showing the global CO2 budget required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius

Will US action push the world in the right direction?

Biden's plans would also have an effect on the global scale, according to a new analysis by Climate Action Tracker (CAT), which tracks commitments and actions of countries on climate change. If implemented, his policies could reduce US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by about 75 gigatons over the next 30 years.

Höhne, whose organization supports CAT, pointed out that along with China's recent pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2060, the US effort would "[take] the world 25-40% of the way towards limiting warming to the Paris agreement's 1.5 Celsius limit."

"This could be an historic tipping point: with Biden's election China, the USA, EU, Japan South Korea — two-thirds of the world economy and over 50% of global GHG emissions — would have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century commitments," added Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, the other CAT partner organization.

Read more: Big Oil splutters — how will it survive the energy transition?

British economist Nicholas Stern, however, has cautioned against too much optimism.

"Biden's victory should set America back on course to play a leading role in global efforts to fight climate change," he said. But even with the US rejoining the Paris agreement and trillions in climate funding, Stern said the world was "unlikely to see global action with the urgency and scale we need over the next decade" to have a good chance of limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) by 2100, unless other countries up their commitments.

"The next four years are crucial, and with a US president in office who once again recognizes global warming as an existential threat to humanity we have a chance, if we work together, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," he said.

Höhne agrees, saying that Biden could "send an important signal. And I believe that in politics, it is the signal that counts, even if in the end you can't quite implement it."

'A glimmer of hope'

Far ahead of his inauguration in January, that signal appears to have been received by leaders in Europe and around the world, many of whom congratulated Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on their victory over the weekend.

Read more: EU plots course as US awaits election winner

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU was ready to "intensify cooperation" on important issues like climate change, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin and Washington would stand "side by side in the fight against global warming and its global consequences."

"Biden's narrow victory offers a glimmer of hope for people and the planet," said Jagoda Munic, director of Friends of the Earth Europe. "This may be the last administration that can prevent catastrophic climate breakdown — the EU and US must deliver the fair share of climate action people and the planet need." 

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues
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