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Biden's climate plans

Neil King
November 25, 2020

US president-elect Joe Biden has chosen a seasoned diplomat to spearhead his climate policy. The long-term goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050 is bold and clear, but is it still achievable?

John Kerry standing in front of the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland
Image: Evan Vucci/AP Photo/picture alliance

The nomination of John Kerry, who signed the Paris Climate Accord on behalf of the US in 2016, underscores president-elect Joe Biden's commitment to make the climate a top priority of his presidency.

Following his appointment John Kerry tweeted: "America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is."

"It'll be an honor to work with our allies and partners, alongside rising young leaders in the climate movement, to tackle the climate crisis with the seriousness and urgency it deserves."

The newly created position of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate will be embedded in the National Security Council — the main forum of presidential advisers and cabinet officials on national security and foreign policy.

'Not America first, but Planet first'

Kerry's appointment was hailed by climate activists and scientists alike.

"After four years of sitting on the sidelines, the US will finally have a representative on the world stage who understands the gravity of the climate crisis and has the experience and skills to work with the global community to help address it," Rachel Cleetus, policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told DW.

"John Kerry's appointment is very good news for the climate. It's not America first anymore, but Planet first," Niklas Höhne of the NewClimate Institute, based in Germany, told DW.

Undoubtedly, 76-year-old Kerry has a lot of experience as a climate diplomat. As Secretary of State under Barack Obama he helped negotiate the Kyoto Protocol. He also was a key architect of the Paris Climate Accord. He is not considered a radical environmentalist which is advantageous, according to Höhne. 

"I think he's the ideal person for the job because international climate policy requires compromise. Kerry's experience is a tremendous asset here — an asset that nobody else really has, except maybe Al Gore," Höhne said.

A sentiment echoed by many, including the former US presidential candidate Gore himself who greeted Kerry's appointment in a tweet, describing him as "a superb choice."

Building momentum at home and abroad

While the exact outlines of Kerry's role and authority are not clear yet, his main task will be the establishment of the United States' voice in the global community dedicated to tackling climate change, according to Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.

"The ability for him to deliver on the promise of real US action to a skeptical international community is probably his biggest challenge in his role," Profeta told DW.

However, Kerry's overall success as climate envoy may well hinge on the "willingness of the US to commit international climate finance and reductions in fossil fuel subsidies," Thorfinn Stainforth, policy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, told DW.  

"This will be more politically difficult than diplomatic overtures and will require political will domestically," Stainforth added.

This is most likely why Kerry's position "will be matched" by a high-level White House climate policy coordinator who is expected to focus on the domestic side of things, while Kerry looks to the international theater. The candidate for this key position is to be confirmed in December.

Environmental groups would like to see the job go to Washington Governor Jay Inslee because he wants to phase out coal by 2030 and make the US carbon neutral as early as 2045. However, US media have also floated him as a possible candidate for secretary of Energy, secretary of the Interior or head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Read more:  Just how viable is Joe Biden's economic plan?

Washington Governor Jay Inslee walks through a fire-damaged landscape with a team of officials
Candidate for climate policy coordinator? Jay Inslee surveying a fire-damaged part of his state in SeptemberImage: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo/picture alliance

Clearing the first hurdle: Rejoining the Paris Agreement

In terms of concrete climate policy, the first step in 2021 will be rejoining the Paris Climate accord just months after the US became the first country to leave it under Donald Trump. The process of rejoining is a mere formality: Biden writes a letter to the secretary general of the United Nations and 30 days later the USA is back on board.

Aside from joining the accord again, Biden has pledged climate neutrality by 2050. "A very important step in the right direction," said Höhne, because with the US, China and the EU now moving towards zero emissions, "it will be difficult for other countries not to jump on this bandwagon."

But 2050 is the long-term goal — "the real challenge for the US lies in determining the new emission reduction target that needs to be submitted under the climate protection agreement for 2030," said Höhne. Instead of negotiating a new target, Biden could simply adopt the 2030 target set out by the Obama administration. But most climate experts agree that this is not enough anymore.

"It would have to be more ambitious to achieve climate neutrality by 2050," Höhne added.

Smoke pours from a coal-fired power station
Biden's pledge to take the US back into the Paris accord has boosted hopes of meeting the pact's ambitious goalsImage: J. David Ake/AP/picture alliance

A divided Congress could limit Biden's climate efforts

Up to 100 environmental rules and regulations have been rolled back by the Trump administration. Implementing new policies on a national level to reverse this will be tough and a lot depends on whether Biden wins the Senate — which won't be decided until January.

"The biggest challenge is that we have a closely divided Congress that has not shown a commitment to ambitious climate action thus far. Without Congressional action, there are limits to what the Biden administration can offer on the world stage," said Cleetus.

If Biden doesn't win the Senate, it is possible that many of the new measures will end up in the courts.

Read moreEurope hails Biden Cabinet as a chance to 'restore' trans-Atlantic ties 

Elevating environmental justice

Under the Trump administration, the EPA hit a 30-year low in the number of pollution cases it referred for criminal prosecution, according to Justice Department (DOJ) data.

Joe Biden has pledged to direct the EPA and DOJ to pursue such cases rigidly in the future, holding corporate executives accountable, including jail time where merited.

He's also announced plans to establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Justice Department to complement the work of the Environment and Natural Resources Commission — a crucial step that elevates environmental justice in the federal government.

"This is a very significant move that has been a long-standing ask from climate justice advocates. There is no question that communities of color and low-income communities in the US face a disproportionate burden from pollution and also from climate impacts," said Cleetus.

Aside from helping the losers of climate change and pollution, this body will also help affected citizens through the necessary transformation process to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

"There are always losers from a transformation. Companies will go bankrupt because their business model no longer works. In coal regions a lot of people will lose jobs. Setting up a commission to do just that, is a very important step in this transformation," Höhne said. "Without supporting these regions, the transformation cannot be made."