Joe Biden is taking the US back into the Paris Agreement, with a promise to repair international alliances and engage in a global effort to decarbonise the economy.
Biden, 78, was sworn in on Wednesday as America’s 46th president in a tense inauguration ceremony snubbed by his predecessor Donald Trump and guarded by thousands of armed soldiers and law enforcement officers.
As the former vice-president returns to the White House, he takes with him the largest climate team ever seen within the US government, including veteran diplomat John Kerry as special envoy.
“We must… set our sights on a nation we know we can be,” Biden said in his inaugural address in front of Capitol Hill – the stage of a violent insurrection by Trump supporters just over two weeks ago.
He pleaded with Americans to unite to overcome the challenges the country is facing as it reels from one of the biggest tests to its democracy, the Covid-19 emergency – which killed nearly 400,000 people across the country – an economic downturn, a racial reckoning and the urgency of the climate crisis.
“The cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that cannot be any more desperate or any more clear.
“We can make America once again the leading force for good in the world. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” he said, promising to lead “by the power of our example”.
“We will be judged by how we resolve these cascading crisis of our era. We will rise to the occasion…We will pass along a new and better world for our children.”
“We are about to attempt to turn a page on a very dark four years for climate action,” Jake Schmidt, managing director of the international programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Climate Home News.
“A Biden-Harris Administration takes office with the stark reality that we would have been in a better position if the world had a stronger US partner,” he said, citing the need for the US to walk the walk at home in order to leverage ambition on the global stage.
Only hours after his speech, Biden signed a raft of executive orders, directives and letters to reverse some of the actions of the Trump presidency and move forward with his plan.
Hurry up and give Biden a pen for him to sign some executive orders 👀👀
— Preston E Kilgore (@PresEKil) January 20, 2021
He notified the UN that the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement – a process which will take 30 days to complete. Once it has rejoined, the Biden administration will need to submit a new national contribution to the agreement.
Climate Action Tracker previously told Climate Home the US should reduce its emissions by at least 52% by 2030 and increase climate finance to developing countries.
At the same time, Biden must work towards an existing goal of cutting emissions 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025, which will “be a lot harder to deliver” after four years of Trump, Schmidt of NRDC told Climate Home.
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Biden signed a sweeping executive order on environmental protection and “restoring science to tackle the climate crisis”. This included directing all executive departments and agencies to review Trump policies and “take appropriate action” to address those harmful to public health and damaging to the environment.
Agencies are being asked to ensure vehicle fuel, methane, power plants and building efficiencies cut pollution, create jobs and save consumers money – setting out the early elements of Biden’s regulatory approach to climate action.
The order places a moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities in the Arctic National Wildfire Refuge and revokes the permit granted to the Keystone XL pipeline – a move showing Biden is sensitive to the environmental movement and its priorities, Nigel Purvis, a former US climate negotiator and CEO of Climate Advisers told Climate Home News.
“The fact that he is taking these steps on day one is not only the fulfilment of campaign promises but also is a symbolic show of commitment to both the American people and the world of his dedication to devoting his administration to climate action,” he said. “Biden is taking a first step in what will be a marathon to devote his administration to climate action.”
Biden has committed to put the US on track for net zero emissions by 2050, to decarbonise the power sector by 2035 and to direct 40% of all clean energy spending toward disadvantaged communities, living in the shadows of refineries and power plants.
“I don’t think he’s going to get every single thing he wants done because that never happens. But I do I think he’s going to get a significant part of his plan and his strategy executed? Yes I do,” Todd Stern, former special envoy for climate change at the State Department told the BBC this week.
That will require the support of all Democrats in Congress, with vice-president Kamala Harris providing the tie-breaker vote for a Senate majority.
Unifying the party, from senator Joe Manchin for the coal-state of West Virginia to progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “is possible but it’s going to take every ounce of Biden’s political skill,” said John Podesta, chair of the Center for American Progress and former adviser on climate to Barack Obama’s administration.
Kerry will lead American’s diplomatic work ahead of the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, UK in November. This will require the US and Europe to “set aside their egos” and “work a lot closer together than before” to drive global climate action, Schmidt said.