Mere hours after being inaugurated, President Biden signed a raft of executive orders and other proclamations, all dealing with high profile topics and, in many cases, fulfilling commitments he made during the campaign. But the climate-related actions on the first day, and the subsequent actions taken in the following days, are just the beginning of a wide-ranging and ambitious climate change agenda.

The executive orders

President Biden signed two key climate-related executive orders on his first day as president. One started the 30-day waiting period before the United States re-joins the Paris Climate Accord (Paris Agreement) and the other, Executive Order 13990, ordered government departments and agencies to address “Federal regulations and other actions during the last 4 years that conflict with these important national objectives, and to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.” In other words, President Biden’s orders reinstated rules and regulations that were weakened or removed by the Trump administration.

The headline-grabbing item in the second executive order was the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline project stretching from Montana’s Canadian border to Nebraska.

The headline-grabbing item in the second executive order was the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline project stretching from Montana’s Canadian border to Nebraska. This project, which was disallowed under President Obama and then given the green light by President Trump, was intended to increase the volume of crude oil which could be moved from the tar sands fields in the Canadian province of Alberta to refineries in Illinois, Texas and Oklahoma. Biden’s executive order delighted the climate community, for whom the pipeline had a totemic symbolism akin to the Adani mine in Australia. However, it disappointed the Canadians including Prime Minister Trudeau, who had been a project supporter.

This same executive order also included measures aimed at:

  • limiting carbon emissions from a range of sources including coal-fired power plants, cars and trucks;
  • improving efficiency standards for vehicles and appliances;
  • reinstating wetland protections; and
  • lowering limits on mercury emissions.

Many of the efforts will have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff reverse work they did over the past four years, but the Department of the Interior will also have work to do — including pausing oil and gas drilling on federal land and banning it outright in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another highly symbolic move.

The pathway to carbon-free and zero emissions

At a broad level, the Biden administration’s actions and announcements were a mix of payback for the climate community and a reset to the regulatory framework that existed at the end of the Obama administration. These initiatives are popular among climate activists but are still well short of what would be needed for the United States to meet the ambitious climate targets President Biden laid out during his campaign: carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net zero national emissions by 2050.

These targets are ambitious and will presumably become US Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — the specific climate actions and targets each nation makes as being part of the Paris Agreement. Ambitious NDCs will give the United States a measure of renewed climate credibility overseas but to regain a climate leadership role, the United States will need to back up the targets with strong action. To kickstart this process, President Biden has called for a global climate summit of world leaders pushing for greater action and ambition. European leaders are likely to welcome the initiative while China, Australia and perhaps even Canada may be lukewarm, for varying reasons.

Looking beyond the Obama administration’s playbook

Setting ambitious targets and re-engaging with the global community are important but the world has moved on since the Obama years. Overall US carbon emissions, as reported by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency (EIA), have dropped by about 15 per cent from their peak 15 years ago but need to drop by double this rate to get to zero by 2050. Furthermore, EIA data shows that power sector emissions are no longer the highest source of US carbon pollution — that honour now rests with the transport sector, which includes the carbon produced by the gasoline and diesel-based cars, trucks and trains. Reduced power sector emissions are the result of plummeting coal use for electricity generation over the past 10 years — a phenomenon that continued unabated during the Trump years. As a result, emissions from electricity generations are down over 33 per cent since their peak in 2005 and remain on a downward trajectory. This does not mean getting to zero by 2035 will be easy but it does mean the focus needs to be less on throttling back coal and more on investment in storage and distribution so that the grid can keep pace with increasing renewables. Political rhetoric about coal will continue but the real action needed to maintain the downward trend for carbon emissions from electricity will be if and how the Biden administration will provide support and infrastructure for more wind and solar.

Areas and sectors of particular focus

Government interest in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) for gas plants will not get many headlines given the strong opposition to CCS from environmental groups but it may be an important supporting technology as wind and solar continue to grow. While the United States gets 30 per cent of its electricity from dispatchable and carbon-free nuclear and hydropower, the Biden administration may decide to place a quiet side hedge on CCS to support a zero-emissions gas generating fleet that can run when there is a gap in the output from wind and solar.

Government interest in carbon capture and sequestration for gas plants will not get many headlines given the strong opposition to CCS from environmental groups but it may be an important supporting technology as wind and solar continue to grow.

Gas extraction will face renewed pressure during the Biden administration. New and tougher rules on methane emissions from drilling and transport installations — a major area of focus for environmental groups — seem inevitable. Fracking, cheap gas and a resurgent US manufacturing economy are, however, a politically fraught combination so President Biden will need to tread cautiously. The first step has been the pause on drilling leases on federal lands. This will impact western states like Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and North Dakota. Expect to see the gradual imposition of tougher rules for extraction from private land, especially in political swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The area where President Biden will need to make rapid progress is the transportation sector. US carbon emissions from cars and trucks are down only a few per cent since their 2005 peak, with a larger population cancelling out reductions from improved fuel efficiency standards. Reports suggest President Biden will make early announcements incentivising electric buses and infrastructure for electric vehicles. A 2050 net zero target needs urgent action to accelerate the roll-out of electric vehicles (EVs). Global climate leadership will also need the United States and its auto industry to catch up with the rapid growth in EV sales in both China and parts of Europe. In 2019, EVs represented two per cent of new car sales in the United States versus five per cent in China and well over 10 per cent in some Scandinavian countries. Electrification of the transport sector has the potential to be more bipartisan than other aspects of the climate debate. It will be opposed by the oil and gas lobbyists but it offers auto manufacturers, both new and traditional, an opportunity to win back market share from international competitors and works well with the Biden administration’s Buy American efforts.

Paving the way for the decarbonisation of other industries

Biden’s presidency comes at a pivotal moment in the climate debate because the time for talk is coming to an end. The climate commitments Biden made in his 2020 presidential campaign require a real change to important aspects of US society and will need massive investment and incentives. While that puts pressure on President Biden and his team, the new administration have the benefit of emergent and rapidly maturing technologies on which to build their emissions reduction program. There are achievable and significant emissions reductions from the power and transport sectors if the Biden administration can leverage the work done over the last few decades developing modern wind and solar generation and vastly improving battery storage options. Future administrations will have less time to act and will most likely need to find emission reductions in sectors like agriculture, farming and industrial processes, where the pathway to decarbonisation is still far from clear. They will hope that the Biden administration spends some time and effort doing the fundamental research and pilot studies in these areas to pave the way for the next suite of decarbonisation initiatives.