Since his victory in the US national election, President-elect Joe Biden and his team have quickly pivoted to plan for governing. Obviously, any time the White House switches parties there is significant work to be done, but not since the 1860 election has a president come into power with so much to rebuild. On a recent episode of Pod Save America, the then-Democratic nominee said that addressing climate change was “the number one issue facing humanity. And it’s the number one issue for me.” Biden believes his plan to address this critical issue matches the immense urgency of the moment. However, control of the Senate is still in question with two runoff elections in Georgia in early January, so it is hard to know what kind of legislative support the new administration might expect.
Over the last 24 months, much ink has been spilled designing, debating, and detailing climate change policy proposals. You could fill libraries with papers arguing the best way to design a carbon tax, to decarbonize the electricity system, or to get nations to agree on targets or goals for emissions reductions. Meanwhile, US progress towards decarbonization, which had been accelerating going into the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, has been stifled and federal actions have been rolled back for the past four years. In fact, as votes were being counted on November 4, the United States became the first and only country to officially leave the Paris Climate Pact.
Faced with this myriad of proposals and years of inaction to make up for, the Biden-Harris administration must act quickly to determine just how to accomplish its many climate change policy goals. Below are seven steps the administration might take to reorient and begin to implement strong and effective climate policy:
1. Appoint diverse leadership at all levels who are committed to fighting the climate crisis.
There is a common saying that “People ARE Policy” and in no context does this apply more than in the energy and environmental policy spheres. The importance of appointing a diverse cohort of leaders—from the cabinet-level to the most junior appointee in an agency—who fully understands the level of effort and ambition needed to achieve deep decarbonization by mid-century is also critical. It shouldn’t just be limited to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. Others, like the Department of Defense, Department of Education, and Department of Transportation play important roles in climate policy also. Without this collective ambition from a diverse group of leaders developing and implementing policy across the federal government, the immensely complex task ahead of us cannot be accomplished. Specifically, appointing diverse early- and mid-career professionals will lead to better long-term outcomes. The immediate work to set the country on a path toward deep decarbonization by mid-century is only the first mile in the journey. Over the coming 5, 10, and 20 years deep decarbonization only becomes more difficult, and having cohorts of experienced leadership down the road will be critical.
2. Build a management structure to ensure all agencies are moving in the same direction.
The policy making and implementing machine in the federal government is not a well-designed system built for efficiency—it is more of a Frankenstein-like monster with parts bolted on to the sides that typically slow down change and implementation. Creating a centralized management structure to oversee decision making and implementation is critical to starting fast and starting strong on a renewed path of climate mitigation and adaptation. One play that has worked well in the past has been creating a focal point within government to manage a particular area of policy, for example, creating a Climate Action Cabinet run by the White House but staffed by cabinet members responsible for implementation. It would be smart for the Biden-Harris administration to establish a centralized body such as this from the outset.
3. Build consensus with state leadership to move toward finding climate solutions.
When the US entered the Paris Climate Agreement it didn’t have the buy-in of many states. Today, state leaders are seeing the impacts of climate change more and more and are increasingly willing to act to reduce emissions, which will also help to create new jobs in cleaner industries. A Biden-Harris administration might convene state leaders, including governors and their state energy office directors, along with mayors and other local leaders, to gather (virtually, at first) and share best practices and commit to specific decarbonization goals. This in turn can help inform the new US Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).
4. Rejoin the Paris Agreement, with a vengeance.
While the US officially left the Paris Climate Agreement on November 4, President-elect Biden has vowed time and again to re-join the agreement on his first day in office. While it will take about a month to officially rejoin, the key moment will come in the run-up to the November 2021 Conference of Parties (COP) scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland. The new US commitment to decarbonize, NDC, will be announced before the COP takes place and will be a primary signal to the international community of the scale of US commitment under the new administration. Domestic action must predicate international buy-in.
5. Invest in research, development, demonstration, and deployment – not just in the electricity sector, but in all sectors that need to decarbonize.
The federal government invests a lot of money into research and development, just under $5 billion in 2020 (not counting the office of science), but that is not nearly enough. Especially as the majority of this funding is spent on electricity-related research like solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear research, and grid integration. Some funding is spent on energy efficiency, manufacturing, and transportation, but only relatively small amounts. If the federal government is going to lead on creating pathways to deep decarbonization, investments should be expanded dramatically beyond just electricity, with an emphasis on harder to decarbonize sectors like heavy duty transportation and industrial processes like cement and steel. The Biden-Harris administration in its first budget to Congress soon after the inauguration, should set a path to triple to quadruple R&D investment over the next five years.
Many argue that the federal role in research should be limited and trust that private companies can take the hand-off from the government to get technologies across the finish line, but at such a critical juncture can we take this risk? Shouldn’t we get all the help we can, including federal action on deployment of clean energy technology? The federal government should increase its role in working with the private sector to demonstrate new technologies as well as providing resources to deploy these new technologies by lowering risk and providing low-cost capital for those who typically can’t get low-cost financing. There are a number of proposals out there to move this recommendation forward, including national green banks, loan programs, and direct funding of deployment, and so it is important that the Biden-Harris Administration think about this upfront.
6. Rethink how the US builds things.
If the US is going to be able to achieve deep decarbonization—net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050—a massive amount of incremental infrastructure will need to be built in the next 30 years. From electricity transmission to new office buildings, homes, and schools to pipelines carrying CO2, trillions of dollars of infrastructure will be built over the coming decades. Yet, the current regulatory model frequently imposes significant delays on the construction of essential clean energy infrastructure. Taking a serious look at how we site and permit the infrastructure needed to achieve these goals will be critical. Many administrations have tried to untangle this knot before, but it’s more important than ever to find a strong path forward and speed up the ability to build clean energy infrastructure.
7. Rebuild alliances around the world
Lastly, but most importantly, the US must step back into a leadership position on the international climate stage. Today, the US emits roughly 15% of global emissions, and while this number is significant, the US cannot do this decarbonization work alone, which is why the US led the way in influencing 197 nations sign on to the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. It worked closely with major greenhouse gas emitters around the world, including China and India, to develop NDCs to decarbonization. When President Trump announced the US departure from the Paris agreement it was akin to leaving the world at the altar on its wedding day. Taking climate actions at home (points 1-6 above) is a good first step in rebuilding trust around the world. But providing technical assistance, policy collaboration, and technology sharing with partner nations is necessary to rebuild the trust lost over the last four years.