President-elect Joe Biden campaigned for office pushing the most ambitious goals to address climate change proposed by any American president. He also vowed to restore environmental protections dismantled by President Donald Trump.
Yet if Republicans retain control of the Senate, it’s unlikely Biden’s plan to spend $2 trillion to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050 will be enacted.
The question now is, what environmental progress can a Biden presidency actually achieve? As the pandemic and stalled economy command immediate attention, will Biden even be able to restore Obama-era environmental policies?
On climate, that wouldn’t be nearly enough, cautions Kate Larsen of the Rhodium Group, a New York-based research firm. Meaningful action, she says, will require moving beyond Obama-era policies and “dialing them up significantly to follow what we now know from the science.”
While political divisions place severe limitations on what Biden can do, they don’t tie his hands completely. Here are some of the major areas where Biden could act right away—or at least without new legislation from Congress.
1. What can be done with executive orders
Many of the changes made by the Trump Administration to the nation’s climate and environmental policies were achieved through executive authority. Biden can use those same tools to undo what Trump did, by reversing any or all of the executive orders Trump has signed.
At the Columbia Law School in New York, researchers at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law began tracking Trump’s efforts to reshape environmental policy on the first day of his administration. Their list counts 159 climate-related actions that cut back on environmental protections or promote the use of fossil fuels or both. In August, the Sabin Center went a step further and wrote a 65-page blueprint for reregulation that lays out how Biden could restore what Trump weakened or wiped away.
“It’s all there,” says Michael Burger, the Sabin Center’s executive director. “Biden will get back and go further and do it faster. There’s little question that climate was a mobilizing force for at least some of the voters.”
For starters, Biden already has promised to rejoin the Paris climate accord on day one of his administration, and also to revoke the permit authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline project. Beyond that, Burger says, the new president can quickly issue executive orders that would reverse a slew of other policy rollbacks. That includes, to name two: Trump’s much-heralded “America First” energy strategy aimed at opening United States coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, and Trump’s reversal of an Obama policy that directed federal agencies to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent in a decade.
Rejoining the Paris accord would require the U.S. to submit new commitments for reducing the nation’s emissions. But it could, in time, reestablish the U.S. as a global leader on climate. Biden could also make good on his promise to publish rankings to “name and shame” countries falling behind on their own climate commitments.
Many of Trump’s actions have landed his administration in court. So far, Trump has won just 17 of 54 decisions in key court cases, according to a Washington Post tracker.
“The number of rule changes that are not subject to a court challenge is fairly small, and the administration has lost most of its cases,” says Andrew Wetzler, a senior advisor to the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the leading environmental organizations challenging the Trump Administration in court.
Many cases are still pending, and executive orders from Biden could render some of them moot. A good example involves the lawsuits challenging Trump’s actions to shrink two national monuments in Utah’s red rock country.
In the largest reversal of protections to public lands in U.S. history, Trump cut the area of Bears Ears by 85 percent and of Grand Staircase Escalante by 50 percent. That set up a court fight over whether the 1906 Antiquities Act, which grants presidents broad authority to create national monuments, was meant to give them the authority to reverse or limit the actions of their predecessors. (The four-paragraph law is silent on that question.)
An executive order issued by Biden could immediately restore the monuments to their original size, protecting those areas from mining and other resource extraction—but it would leave the legal issue unresolved.
2. What will require new regulations
Biden can also reverse, without Congressional approval, Trump’s efforts to change federal environmental regulations. Any new regulation not finalized by the time Trump’s term expires can simply be scrapped. New regulations that have already taken effect, however, will remain on the books. To change them, Biden would have to start new rulemaking, a complicated, multi-step process that includes extensive public involvement and often takes several years.
Trump revised more than 100 regulations, from narrow to consequential. For example, he rolled back efficiency standards on dishwashers and opened up more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one of the world’s largest temperate rain forests, to logging.
The Trump Administration took what some environmentalists consider one of its most consequential regulatory steps just this past summer, when it issued new rules under the country’s foundational environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA requires federal agencies to consider whether their actions—funding or permitting the construction of a highway or a pipeline, for example—will have significant environmental impact. The new rules shorten those environmental reviews to less than two years, and they free agencies from having to consider impacts that are “remote” in time or space—like, for example, the effect on global climate change of a new oil pipeline.
Because the new NEPA rules don’t expressly prohibit taking such impacts into account, however, the Sabin Center argues that President Biden could immediately direct federal agencies to keep doing so, while his administration goes through the long process of rewriting Trump’s rules.
Biden could also reverse rollbacks to several rules concerning methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Those rollbacks included the elimination of federal requirements that oil and gas companies monitor and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines, and storage sites.
One of Trump’s signature rollbacks eliminated the Clean Power Plan—President Obama’s most significant policy against climate change. That plan, which had been expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030, had never taken effect, because it was challenged in court by a coalition of industry and Republican state governments. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency replaced the plan with a rule that it estimates will reduce carbon emissions by just 0.7 percent by 2030. That Affordable Clean Energy rule is now also tied up in court, in a suit filed by Democratic-led states.
Biden could start all over with a new rule regulating power plant emissions. That would take time, and it too might be challenged in court, Burger points out.
3. Promoting the green economy
While Biden’s climate ambitions may be constrained on Capitol Hill, he’ll have Wall Street’s ear, especially as businesses are increasingly factoring climate change into their investment decisions. To give just one example: the Southern Company, which operates power plants across the Southeast and participated in the legal challenge to the Clean Power Plan, this spring announced a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Other major utilities have made similar pledges.
Within hours after Biden was declared the winner, Wood Mackenzie, an international energy consultancy group, issued an advisory on what to expect. The firm anticipates little political action in Washington and predicts “the key influences shaping the U.S. energy industry are likely to be market forces.”
Biden can encourage those forces. Ed Crooks, who oversees Wood MacKenzie analysis in the Americas, forecasts restrictions on oil and gas development, including bans on new leasing and “new hurdles” for permitting of pipelines and exporting facilities. He also anticipates Biden will move quickly to develop the offshore wind industry and reverse the Trump Administration’s efforts to prevent wind development along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Virginia.
Vehicle emission standards is another area where Trump rolled back Obama-era regulations, including California’s authority to set its own vehicle emission standards. Biden plans to restore both. Crooks noted that Biden’s action on emission standards will spur sales of electric cars.
“By 2030 there could be four million EVs on U.S. roads as a result of those standards, almost 60 percent more than if the Trump Administration’s rule had taken effect,” Crooks wrote.
Finally, Biden can dramatically change the tone of government merely by his choice of cabinet officials. Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, serves as Trump’s EPA administrator, where he oversaw the dismantling of the Clean Power Plan that had been vigorously opposed by coal companies and coal-burning utilities. David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, oversees public lands—and thus the effort to open them to more drilling for oil and gas—as the Interior Department secretary.
Last month, Trump startled government scientists by signing an executive order creating a new government job category that makes it easier to fire civil servants who write policy. Scientists, especially those working on climate or environmental policies, say they fear they will be targeted. Biden could easily cancel the executive order and reassure them.
4. The clock is ticking
What Biden can’t do, scientists say, is recover the crucial time that has been lost in the global effort to fight climate change. During the Trump years the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued increasingly urgent warnings, saying that the window to hold off the worst climate change is closing. Many researchers consider Trump’s failure to address the issue to be the greatest harm he inflicted on the environment. That presents the Biden administration with its greatest environmental challenge.
“Time is one of the most important elements of the climate crisis,” Wetzler says. “Every month we delay taking meaningful action is another month of baked-in warming.”
Says Columbia’s Burger: “We know that we have less than a decade to get our economy and the global economy on course for zero emissions. He’s wasted four years of precious time.”