With the counting of ballots continuing across the United States, former vice president Joe Biden looks to be inching towards the presidency, in a hard-fought contest. A Biden win will cause a major shakeup in global climate action, ousting a president who withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement, and delivering an ambitious pivot of the world’s largest economy towards green industries.
As part of his pitch to American voters, Biden’s presented a plan on energy and climate change that included commitments to transitioning to a zero emissions electricity system by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
To achieve this, Biden committed to a $US2 trillion ($A2.8 trillion) plan for establishing a new green economy, including support for the automotive industry to grow production of electric vehicles, boost zero-emissions public transport, and heavy investment in the research and development of new clean energy technologies.
“Under potential President-elect Biden, the US will have the most progressive position on climate change in the nation’s history.” Australian National University research fellow Dr Christian Downie said. “Biden has already laid out a $US2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure plan, and a commitment to re-join the Paris agreement and a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
“For Australia this means every international negotiation our diplomats turn up to, climate change will not only be top of the agenda, but we will likely face constant criticism, as the Prime Minister did from Boris Johnson last week.”
Of significance for Australia is a Biden pledge to drive international leadership on climate change and an aim to re-engage with the international community to see a boost to global climate ambition. In his policy platform, Biden singled out countries that had been ‘cheating by using America’s economic leverage and power of example’.
“Joe Biden knows how to stand with America’s allies, stand up to adversaries, and level with any world leader about what must be done,” the Biden platform says. “He will not only recommit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change – he will go much further than that. He will lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets.”
No doubt, this will have implications for Australia. As economist Ross Garnaut said, a Biden presidency is likely to see Australia relegated to the ‘naughty corner’ on climate change, unless the Morrison government likewise adopts a zero emissions target by 2050.
Director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at the Australian National University, professor Frank Jotzo, told RenewEconomy that a Biden administration would likely use diplomatic channels to up the pressure on the Australian government to commit to long-term zero emissions targets.
“The relationship between the US and Canberra is a close one, so usually these things are dealt with in through quiet bilateral dialogue,” Jotzo said.
“Biden-Harris would put a very heavy emphasis on US national interests. It will be America first, even under Biden, but they have a very different definition from Trump on what will be best for America in the long term. The big thrust under Biden will be to promote manufacturing and high tech industries, to facilitate the shift to low carbon. This is part of their economic strategy, to support industries that can be winners in a transition to zero carbon.
“Things like the Technology Investment Roadmap, while providing some level of common ground between Australia and the United States on driving technology research and development, is unlikely to be sufficient and the United States will likely push for stronger commitments on targets,” Jotzo added.
A likely first step for a Biden presidency on climate change would be the re-joining of the United States to the Paris Agreement. Trump’s withdrawal from the accord came into effect this week, with the United States becoming the first country to officially exit the treaty, just four years after it was negotiated.
“Still it is shocking that a US President would withdraw from the only multilateral process in existence that aims to stabilise the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees if not 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures, when climate induced disasters are being experienced all around the world – including in the United States,” climate and environmental law expert at the University of Sydney, professor Rosemary Lyster, said.
“These disasters come with significant economic and non-economic costs for society and for our biodiversity and ecosystems – as we have just witnessed in Australia.”
Biden has flagged that re-joining the Paris Agreement would be one of the very first acts of his presidency.
Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it. https://t.co/L8UJimS6v2
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 5, 2020
Alongside the Presidential contest, control of the senate remains a key battleground. Democrats, who have already secured control of the House of Representatives, were hoping to also gain a majority in the senate, allowing the party to dictate legislation passed by the United States congress.
Republicans are currently favoured to maintain control of the Senate, albeit with a smaller majority.
The emerging prospect of a Biden presidency and a Republican controlled senate could potentially frustrate some renewed American action on climate change. While the scenario may prevent the Democrats from passing an expansive ‘Green New Deal’ style package of legislative reforms and stimulus measures through congress, it would not entirely prevent ambitious action on climate action by under a Biden administration.
It presents the same scenario faced by former president Barack Obama for much of his time in office, and which saw Obama rely more heavily on the executive powers of the president to introduce measures to reduce emissions. Biden and Harris could do the same.
Biden could take a number of regulatory measures, including the removal of Trump’s restrictions designed to prevent state governments from introducing stricter vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency standards. Trump has sought to prevent states like California from introducing stricter rules on vehicle emissions, intended to support the uptake of fuel-efficient and electric vehicles.
A Biden administration may also look to push state governments further, adopting an approach used by the Obama administration, with the use of Federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency to introduce regulations on greenhouse gas emission. It was this approach that underpinned the establishment of Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
As the Environmental Protection Agency reports directly to the president, the passage of legislation through congress was not necessary for the implementation of a Clean Power Plan that imposed emissions reduction targets on every State. Concentrating on driving action at a state level would allow Biden to avoid a senate road-block, and would build upon some of the ambitious action already being undertaken in progressive states.
The Trump administration has since effectively trashed both the Clean Power Plan, and the operation of the US EPA, but a Biden administration could restore both even without full Democrat control of congress.
“What we have seen under Trump is the hollowing out of institutions, and I expect the Biden administration would re-build these institutions,” professor Jotzo said. “This does not happen overnight, as it requires changing the culture and re-hiring people. But, I imagine the Biden administration would make use of these regulatory powers.”
The counting of ballots continues, with the final declaration of official results unlikely to occur for some time.