Only a few hours after being sworn in, President Joseph R. Biden signed an executive order that recommits the United States to the Paris Climate Accord. The U.S., the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, now rejoins more than 195 nations in seeking to limit global warming to 1.5 ° Celsius (2.7 ° Fahrenheit) by ratcheting up emissions reductions every five years. The goal is to achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050.
In 2015, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, the U.S. committed to reducing American emissions by 26-28 percent by 2030 by raising vehicle emissions standards and phasing out coal-powered electrical generation and then accelerating emission reductions by 2050. In 2017, President Donald Trump announced his administration would be taking the U.S. out of the agreement. The actual abandonment of the agreement didn’t occur until November 2020.
President Trump’s policy caused a groundswell among state and local governments to commit to the U.S.’s 2015 pledge. The Center for American Progress found that 26 red and blue states and territories—representing a majority of the U.S. population—remained committed to the Obama administration’s goals. Furthermore, the Clean Energy States Alliance states that 17 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia enacted plans for achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 or earlier. Thousands of cities, businesses, religious organizations, universities, and non-profit organizations, including ASLA, joined the “We Are Still In” coalition.
Due to the pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions dropped 9.2 percent in 2020, but with expansive forest fires out West, the net reduction was calculated to be just 6.4 percent. Still, this reduction actually puts the U.S. within reach of achieving the Obama administration’s goals for 2030.
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned on an ambitious platform of climate action and environmental justice. To achieve their plan, they call for $1.7 trillion in federal government investment, along with leveraging another $5 trillion in state and local government and private sector funds over the next decade.
Specifically, their plan calls for 100 percent renewable power in the electricity sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions no later than 2050. The administration plans on asking Congress to enact legislation that establishes an enforcement mechanism for milestone targets, makes “historic investments” in clean energy and climate research and innovation, and “incentivizes the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations,” particularly in underserved and historically marginalized communities.
Other major parts of their platform include taking on a global leadership role to speed up climate action, ensuring all investments in new infrastructure also help American communities adapt to climate change, targeting polluters who “disproportionately harm underserved communities,” and supporting the growth of green jobs.
According to The Guardian, the Biden-Harris administration is expected to organize an international climate summit in spring 2021 in the effort to spur on more ambitious commitments at the UNFCCC COP26 meeting in November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. The U.S.’s own emission reduction goals will also be reconsidered and then packaged as a nationally determined contribution, which is required for signatories to the Paris Climate Accord.
To realize these plans, President Biden has elevated climate change-related positions in his administration and assembled a team of well-seasoned climate policy experts.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry was appointed as Special Envoy for Climate Change and given a seat on the National Security Council and the cabinet. On the domestic side, Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been appointed as national “climate czar,” with responsibility for coordinating domestic climate policy. (McCarthy was the keynote speaker at ASLA’s 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture). The Washington Post reports that Ali Zaidi, New York’s deputy secretary for energy and environment, will be McCarthy’s deputy.
The EPA and the Departments of the Interior, Energy, Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development all play critical roles in achieving the Biden-Harris administration’s climate goals.
To head up the EPA, Biden nominated Michael S. Regan, Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, who started the department’s first environmental justice advisory board. For Secretary of the Interior, Biden nominated New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman selected for a cabinet role. Both Rep. Haaland and President Biden are strong advocates for conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and waters in an effort to protect American biodiversity and natural resources and better use landscapes as a carbon sink.
And for Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Biden nominated Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who pledges to integrate climate change and equity considerations into federal transportation infrastructure investments. The Department of Transportation is crucial to expanding access to low-carbon transportation infrastructure, such as green Complete Streets and public transit; creating more stringent fuel emission standards; and expanding access to electric vehicles. Learn more about all of Biden’s key nominees.