As promised, President Biden has recommitted the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement. He’s also undertaken sweeping executive action to undo the previous administration’s environmental rollbacks. But after four years of lagging behind the rest of the world, the U.S. will face significant challenges in achieving meaningful emissions reductions without new legislation. And that means a tough road ahead working with an evenly divided Senate and moderates in Biden’s own party from states that remain dependent on fossil fuels.
The 2015 Paris climate agreement requires participating countries to set targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and reconvene every five years to increase their goals. Although the agreement has no legal requirement to hold countries to meeting their targets, it represents a significant step in the global effort to address climate change. Under President Obama, the U.S. pledged to cut emissions by about 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. But after President Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the agreement in June 2017, the U.S. fell behind as other countries continued progressing toward hitting their targets.
Biden’s Challenges Ahead
Participating nations are scheduled to meet in November 2021 to ramp up their commitments. This will put pressure on the U.S. to aggressively cut emissions as it attempts to make up for lost time while determining a meaningful new goal for 2030. Experts predict the Biden Administration will set a target for a 40–50% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. It’s worth noting that there’s a big difference between those two numbers. Even in deep-blue Massachusetts, our climate-friendly governor recently vetoed climate legislation, in part because he concluded that the 50% target for 2030 was $6 billion more expensive than his own administration’s planned 45% reduction.
We can certainly expect a significant push from the federal government to promote renewable energy technologies and more heavily regulate the biggest emitters—namely, fossil fuel power plants and the transportation sector. This is consistent with the climate-related executive actions President Biden has already undertaken—for example, signing a sweeping executive order to review Trump’s environmental rollbacks, repealing the construction permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and issuing a moratorium on new federal oil and gas leasing.
But executive action won’t be enough to catch us up with the rest of the world. New legislation is needed. That will require President Biden to work with moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Jon Tester from Montana. And both have expressed skepticism about bold climate reform that reduces the country’s current fossil fuel operations. Manchin—who aired a 2010 campaign ad of himself shooting a climate bill with a rifle—has said he supports relying on the “market” as opposed to “total mandates” and believes “[y]ou can use coal and oil and gas in much cleaner fashion.” Manchin also opposes eliminating the filibuster to pass laws without Republican support.
At the same time, Manchin co-sponsored a bill in the latest coronavirus stimulus package authorizing $35 billion for clean energy programs over the next five years. It seems even Joe Manchin understands that clean energy investments can create jobs amid declining demand for coal. The question is whether he and Jon Tester will come around in time for Biden to make real progress on climate change.
This work won’t be easy. But it is necessary.