The Biden administration has a huge task before them when it comes to protecting communities from dangerous climate impacts.
The Trump administration demolished environmental safeguards, suppressed climate science and abandoned global cooperation on climate action. Given the immensity and urgency of the decarbonization challenge, it won’t be enough to simply reverse rollbacks from the Trump administration and restore previous regulations. Four years of driving in the wrong direction has widened the chasm the United States must cross to meet its Paris Climate Agreement targets and rein in harmful climate pollution.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to additional, related damage. Vulnerable communities and communities of color suffer disproportionately from COVID-19. Other Trump administration actions have negatively affected frontline and fenceline communities, including creating a loophole that allows large industrial facilities to emit more cancer-causing pollutants, eliminating environmental risk assessments for major construction projects and weakening the safety regulations for chemical plants. It is imperative that justice and equity be front-and-center in all Biden administration efforts to address climate change.
Fortunately, President-elect Biden has assembled a team with ample legal grounding to take early executive actions — not only to roll back Trump administration damages, but to roll forward new rules that address the ever-growing climate crisis.
Here are seven areas the Biden administration can act on that saw consequential rollbacks and deregulatory moves from the Trump administration:
1. Science-Based Policymaking
Trump Administration Rollback: Disregarded Scientific Data About Climate Change, Censored Health Impacts Data and Dismantled EPA Advisory Boards
President Trump minimized the role of scientific evidence in environmental governance through various actions, such as dissolving apolitical scientific advisory boards, blocking evidence-based Congressional testimony and denying climate change in federal reports. The Trump administration also blocked the release of dozens of clean energy studies. Additionally, the White House removed the director of the program which oversees the Congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment, the gold standard in detailing the climate risks facing Americans.
Biden Administration Roll-forward: Return Science to the Center of Decision-making and Elevate Frontline Voices
President-elect Biden and his appointees should take on the task of repairing scientific advisory boards and restoring them with impartial scientists. Biden should also swiftly repeal the so-called “secret science rule,” which was finalized at the eleventh hour of Trump’s term and, if left in place, would severely limit the role of health data in guiding environmental decision-making, such as around clean air and water.
Central to this return to evidence-based decision-making should be fully incorporating current and future climate risks in government assessments, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The Biden administration should also set an updated social cost of carbon to guide federal rulemaking.
Furthermore, President-elect Biden should make a point of elevating the lived experience of community members at the front lines of environmental injustice. These stakeholders should be consulted in decision-making processes within the EPA and other intra- and inter-agency bodies tasked with crafting climate solutions. The formation of an environmental justice advisory board could serve this cross-cutting role.
2. The Paris Agreement
Trump Administration Rollback: Withdrew from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change
On November 4th, 2020, the United States officially became the only country in the world to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Considering that the United States is most responsible for cumulative CO2 emissions, this move will be remembered internationally as an era-defining abdication of leadership.
Biden Administration Roll-forward: Rejoin Paris Agreement, Update GHG Reduction Target and Engage with International Partners
Leaders around the world have already expressed their enthusiasm about revitalizing international cooperation on climate change, while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated in stark terms the planetary implications of delivering on the Biden campaign’s climate goals. In addition to requesting to rejoin the Agreement on day one, President-elect Biden must take all necessary action to restore the nation’s leadership role in confronting climate change.
3. Vehicle Emissions Standards
Trump Administration Rollback: Loosened Emissions Standards for Cars and Trucks and Voided California’s Waiver
The Trump administration heavily rolled back regulations in the transportation sector, namely the 2012 rule requiring automakers to manufacture cleaner and more efficient vehicles. The administration replaced existing standards with a weaker rule that would only cut a fraction of the emissions and would leave drivers on the hook for a $231 billion increase in fuel spending between 2021 and 2035. On top of that, the Trump administration revoked a waiver that enables California and 13 other states to voluntarily set higher efficiency standards for passenger vehicles.
Biden Administration Roll-forward: Reinstate Emissions Standards, Restore California’s Waiver Authority and Advance Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Performance Standards
The Biden administration must develop a plan for the country’s highest-emitting sector, with restoration of the Obama administration’s emissions standards one of the most urgent moves. It should also promptly restore California’s authority to set stronger standards.
One of the most stunning trends since the Obama administration has been the declining costs of lithium-ion batteries, poising battery-electric vehicles for a breakout. Just in the past few months, California announced its planned phaseout of new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and 15 states formed a pact to procure zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. The Biden administration could go further by setting federal zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) performance standards for all vehicle classes, while committing the federal government to electrifying its vehicle fleets.
4. Clean Electricity
Trump Administration Rollback: Dismantled the Clean Power Plan
The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scrapped the Clean Power Plan, which was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. Instead, they put forth a replacement policy that could result in 1,400 additional premature deaths and $30 billion in annual health damages compared with the original rule. The Trump administration defended this rollback by using a questionable methodology in calculating the social cost of carbon (the estimate of damage caused by each ton of CO2 emissions), thereby minimizing the benefits of reducing emissions.
Biden Administration Roll-forward: Rescind Replacement Rule and Lay Groundwork for New Standards
President-elect Biden should rescind the replacement Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. His administration should also lay the groundwork for a new policy to decarbonize the electricity sector, which accounts for 27% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Meeting the Biden-Harris campaign’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035 will require a wide-ranging portfolio of executive-level actions, in addition to Congressional action such as a Clean Energy Standard.
The Biden administration can start procuring clean energy to decarbonize federal government and military buildings, executing on offshore wind approvals and streamlining siting provisions for renewable energy facilities and transmission lines. President-elect Biden can also empower the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) by putting forth nominees who are in favor of enabling a shift to low-carbon power.
5. Methane Pollution
Trump Administration Rollback: Scrapped Rules Limiting Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas
In August 2020, the Trump administration rolled back existing standards requiring fossil fuel companies to monitor and repair methane leaks in new and existing facilities and pipelines. This action endangers citizens who live close to the wells and greatly impacts the climate, as methane is a super pollutant with 84-times the heat-trapping capacity of CO2 over 20 years.
Biden Administration Roll-forward: Strengthen Methane Rules and Enhance Methane Leak Monitoring
The Biden administration should not only restore Obama-era regulations on methane, but go a step further in strengthening them to account for the chronic undercounting of methane emissions. This should include stronger leak detection and repair requirements and enhanced federal monitoring capacity to adequately assess the extent of the emissions and pinpoint the most problematic sources. Setting an updated and accurate social cost of methane can help provide a foundation for the administration’s moves to curb this dangerous gas.
6. Industrial Emissions
Trump Administration Rollback: Exempted Industrial Sources from Pollution Regulation
In the final two weeks of President Trump’s term, his EPA finalized a rule effectively stating that industrial sectors — such as steel, cement, chemicals and oil refining — do not meet a newly-increased threshold to be considered a “significant contributor” of greenhouse gases and thus are not eligible to be regulated for their emissions.
Biden Administration Roll-forward: Repeal New Rule and Set Standards on Low-Carbon Steel and Cement
In addition to rolling back Trump’s twilight rule to exempt industrial facilities, the Biden administration can show leadership in moving to decarbonize the industrial sector. Industry currently accounts for 22% of total U.S. GHG emissions, with subsectors like cement and steel each holding a larger emissions footprint than most individual states.
The Biden administration should consider establishing federal standards for low-carbon steel and cement, thereby spurring innovation and incentivizing the scale-up of materials and processes consistent with Paris Agreement goals. This becomes even more crucial if Congress moves to pass an infrastructure package that prompts additional use of these materials. WRI will be publishing reports containing specific recommendations for low-carbon steel and cement standards in the coming months.
7. Building Efficiency
Trump Administration Rollback: Blocked Rule to Phase Out Inefficient Lightbulbs
The Trump administration Department of Energy (DOE) rolled back Bush administration-era requirements for energy-efficient lightbulbs and failed to update several other standards. Scrapping and freezing these rules costs consumers money and increases GHG emissions. According to NRDC, the administration’s failure to update energy efficiency rules for 25 different appliances misses an opportunity to save consumers well over $22 billion per year on energy bills by 2035.
Biden Administration Roll-forward: Set Stronger Efficiency Standards and Encourage Building Electrification
President-elect Biden should direct his DOE to reinstate and strengthen cost- and energy-saving efficiency standards. However, this low-hanging fruit is far from enough.
Fossil fuel combustion in commercial and residential buildings accounts for 12% of U.S. GHG emissions. The uptick in telecommuters has led to a shift of energy consumption to the residential building sector, which may have lasting effects. To decarbonize this sector, robust efforts must be taken to not only boost energy-efficiency in appliances, but also electrify buildings to tackle the fossil fuel-powered heating processes which comprise the bulk of sector emissions.
The Biden administration should also offer low-cost financing to encourage the installation of electric heat-pumps and electric stoves in commercial and single- and multi-family buildings.
Ushering in a New Era of U.S. Climate Action
When President-elect Biden takes office, he will inherit no shortage of crises to confront: the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, economic turmoil and climate change. Recognizing that these challenges are interwoven, the Biden-Harris transition team promised to seek out synergistic solutions to address multiple crises in tandem.
Climate action presents an opportunity for the United States not only to seize upon the next generation of technologies and manufacturing, but also contribute to ending systemic racial inequities, fortify frontline communities and ensure that clean energy benefits are accrued equitably. By enacting a portfolio of early executive actions, the Biden administration can use this crucial window to set the nation on a path to achieve decarbonization.