A for targets, D for action: Joe Biden’s first year on climate, graded

While the US president has had some climate wins abroad, domestic action has been held back by the Senate, the courts and rising fuel prices

Joe Biden drives an electric jeep wrangler near the White House (Photo: White House/Flickr)


On 20 January 2021, Joe Biden took to a stage that had only recently been vacated by rioters, declared that the world faces “a climate in crisis” and asked: “Are we going to step up?”

So has he? We asked Climate Home News readers and politicians from around the world how they rated the US president’s performance. The reviews were mixed.

Readers were underwhelmed, with our 122 survey respondents giving an average score of 4.8 out of 10.

Mozambique-based conservationist Allan Schwarz called him “just another wet fish flopping about at the whim of big business” while Alaskan fisherman David Beebe complained “Joe’s climate dawgs don’t hunt”.

Swiss professor Francisco Szekely gave Biden more credit, saying “his words and promises were followed by immediate actions”. Israel-based Phyllis Butler Posy said: “Considering the challenges and the Senate stonewalling his appointments, he has done WAY WAY better than could be humanly expected!”

While China’s foreign ministry rarely misses an opportunity to bash the US record, international politicians from allied countries are fairly sympathetic towards Biden. Perhaps because they know from experience the limits of executive power, want to stay in Biden’s good books or are simply relieved they don’t have to deal with Trump.

Climate Home News spoke to current and former environment ministers from Sweden, Pakistan and Canada and Nigeria’s foremost climate MP. None had a bad word to say about Biden or his climate envoy John Kerry.

At home, Biden’s flagship climate legislation has been blocked by his own senators and early attempts to cut oil and gas production have been abandoned under pressure from the courts and rising fuel prices.

Biden has doubled climate finance and doubled it again – but the US still gives less than its fair share, by many analyses. It’s used its influence to push other countries for more ambition and sign up over 100 nations to pursue cuts to methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Setting targets – A

In April 2021, Biden announced a target for the US to reduce its emissions by 50-52% between 2005 and 2030.

Compared to his predecessors, this was a huge increase in ambition. The Barack Obama administration’s target was 26-28% between 2005 and 2025 and Donald Trump didn’t have a target.

It just about met campaigners’ demands. Paris Agreement architect Laurence Tubiana had called for at least 50% and “ideally more” while Climate Action Tracker asked for at least 52%.

Compared to other developed countries, it requires steeper cuts. Analysis from Carbon Brief shows that, from a 2018 baseline, it’s a 52% reduction. That’s more than the UK’s 46%, EU’s 41%, South Korea’s 40% and Japan’s 39% .

On the other hand, after decades of inaction, US emissions are huge. Critics argue that 50% from 2018 may be enough for countries like the UK, which has reduced emissions rapidly up to 2018, but not for the US.

Think tanker Tim Gore pointed out that after a 50% cut, the average US citizen would still have a bigger carbon footprint in 2030 than an EU citizen today.

But Biden is not responsible for those historic failures. He has to work from the starting point he’s given and 50% is a pretty impressive target.

He’s also aiming for a carbon-free power sector by 2035, the same date as the UK, Germany and Canada. As less than 40% of the US’s electricity is carbon-free, that’s a steep climb.

Climate legislation – D

This is really an A for effort and an F for achievement. Biden came to power promising a “clean energy revolution” and tried to make this happen with a huge infrastructure bill. Climate analysts said it matched the ambition of the US’ 2030 climate target.

But with a majority of just one in the Senate, he needed the vote of every single Democratic senator to pass the bill. Two senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, held out and ambition suffered in the ensuing negotiations.

Biden split the bill into two. One part, the bipartisan infrastructure framework, passed with some Republican support.

This $550bn bill contained funding for rail and electric vehicles but also for roads, bridges and airport expansion. Analysis from Princeton University found this bill would cause only a “nominal [emissions] reduction below existing policy”.

The bipartisan deal only slightly reduces emissions (Source: REPEAT/Princeton University)

To get close to reaching its climate targets, the analysis suggests, the US needs to pass the other part of Biden’s infrastructure package, known as Build Back Better (BBB).

After months of negotiations, pro-coal senator Manchin went on Fox News in December to announce he would not vote for BBB, no matter how much it was watered down.

Until October, Catherine Mckenna was Canada’s infrastructure and communities minister. She told Climate Home News that the BBB was “very important. It’s the cornerstone”.

Asked if the US can meet its new climate targets without it, she said: “I think they need to get the BBB. But I think they know that and they’re working really hard to make it happen in some shape or form.”

Former Swedish environment minister Lena Ek told Climate Home News she sympathised with Biden because had also been in the situation of having to rely on one or two votes. “It’s not easy,” she said.

As one UK-based Climate Home News reader summarised: “He has failed to turn [good intentions] into concrete measures, thanks to the precarious nature of his majority, the self-interest of a couple of pivotal Democrats and the vagaries of the US political system.”

Keeping fossil fuels in the ground – D

A few months into Biden’s term of office, a bombshell International Energy Agency (IEA) report said that if the world’s energy system is to reach net zero by 2050 then there should be no new fossil fuel production.

At that time, Biden would have felt vindicated for his measures to curb oil industry growth. On his first day in office, he cancelled a government permit allowing construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from the tar sands of Alberta in Canada to refineries along the US’ Gulf Coast.

In February, Biden cancelled an auction of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity said: “Biden understands the urgent need to keep this oil in the ground.”

In June, a Louisiana judge called Terry Doughty ordered the Biden administration to end a pause on oil licensing on public lands and waters because “millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake”.

In September, the administration auctioned off an area of the Gulf of Mexico the size of Nigeria. The sales could ultimately result in 1.1 billion barrels of crude oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of gas being burnt.

Egypt names foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to lead Cop27 climate talks

Since then, a fierce debate has erupted on whether Biden had to do what Doughty told him or not.

Administration legal advice emerged claiming the court order “enjoins” and “restrains ” the government from pausing oil and gas leases but does not “compel” them to auction them “let alone on the urgent timeline specified”.

Replying to our survey, attorney turned Mid-Western farmer Deborah Wendt said: “A big reason Biden is disappointing in his climate actions are the oil leases in the Gulf that he allowed to happen. He was NOT legally forced to do that, as he claimed. He could have delayed that process for years.”

Biden’s desire to restrain oil and gas production may have been tempered by rising fuel prices. The US has more vehicles per person than any other country and voters are sensitive to high fuel costs.

Shortly after Cop26, Biden asked the OPEC group of oil producers to pump more oil. He then released some of the US’s own strategic oil reserves and persuaded other countries to do the same. All this was to lower the oil price – reducing the incentive to switch to cleaner alternatives.

As well as the emissions which come from use of their products, the oil and gas industry releases emissions from the process of getting their oil and gas out of the ground.

In April, the US announced a forum for oil and gas producing countries to reduce these emissions without necessarily reducing production. The Net Zero Producers Forum was met with scepticism at the time and has not held a meeting since.

Climate finance – C

A key and accepted principle of international climate cooperation is that the countries who disproportionately caused the problem and have the money help those who didn’t and don’t.

So in 2008, wealthy countries agreed to give $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020. Collectively, they’ve failed to meet this goal and US stinginess is the main reason why.

In 2017-2018, the US gave just $1.8 billion. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) estimates the country’s fair share of $100bn is $43bn.

Biden has gone some way to remedy this. In April, he doubled US climate finance from Obama-era levels to $5.7bn.

After the European Commission president called him out in September, he doubled it again to $11.4 bn a year by 2024. Biden claimed this would “make the US a leader in international climate finance”.

Far from being a leader, Biden has just made the US less of a laggard. The $11.4bn promised by 2024 is less than Japan, a much smaller economy, gave in 2017-2018. Relative to their size, most European countries also give more.

At Cop26, Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry used the doubling of finance to justify blocking developing countries‘ call for a share of revenue from voluntary and bilateral carbon trading be provided to the Adaptation Fund.

In Glasgow, the US opposed developing countries’ call for a funding facility to help vulnerable nations respond to the loss and damages inflicted by an overheating climate.

Nigerian MP Sam Onuigbo said: “Perhaps [Biden] has not done enough for Africa but he has raised hopes and there is a new impetus in climate change issues.”

Fossil fuel finance – A

As well as funding more clean energy abroad, Biden has moved to restrict US funding for dirty energy, endangering gas-fired power projects in Thailand and South Africa.

In August, the US Treasury instructed its representatives at multilateral development banks to prioritise clean energy and “only consider fossil fuels if [cleaner options] are unfeasible”.

Maria Pastukhova, of think tank E3G, called this move “a game-changer in making public fossil finance phaseout a new global norm”.

At Cop26 in November, the US joined a UK-led pledge not to commit any new finance to unabated coal, oil and gas projects in other countries by the end of 2022.

Diplomacy – A

After Biden re-signed the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, governments around the world breathed a sigh of relief that the Trump ordeal was over.

Pakistan’s climate minister Malik Amin told Climate Home News that Biden “pushed to quickly fill the climate leadership vacuum that had been created by the unceremonious exit from the Paris agreement by his predecessor”.

Biden organised an Earth Day climate summit in April. Japan and Canada announced improved climate targets and South Korea pledged to end coal finance abroad.

Catherine McKenna, Canada’s infrastructure minister at the time, told Climate Home News: “That summit… was useful in getting countries to increase ambition and the US played a very important role.”

In terms of personnel, Biden got the band back together, hiring Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry as his climate envoy. While the 78-year-old’s appointment didn’t excite everybody in the youthful US climate movement, Kerry is well liked and well connected abroad.

G77+China’s Ahmadou Sebory Toure, the US’s John Kerry and Sue Biniaz and Gabon’s Lee White huddle on the final day of Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, UK (Photo: UN Climate Change)

Ek was pleased to see officials she had worked with, like top lawyer Sue Biniaz, back in power. “A constructive negotiation team in place again,” she said.

Kerry even has relatively good relations with the US’s geopolitical adversary China, the world’s biggest polluter. After his appointment, the Chinese government took veteran diplomat Xie Zhenhua out of retirement to rekindle old ties.

The two sides went on to have bilateral discussions and, at Cop26, a joint agreement to cooperate on climate action.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Kerry’s year of diplomacy was the Cop26 methane pledge. Over 100 countries agreed to reduce emissions of methane, a particularly polluting greenhouse gas, by 30% between 2020 and 2030.

All the pledges the US has encouraged are only as good as the action they deliver. But targets are a necessary first step.

Migration – B

One test of solidarity with climate change’s victims is whether you let them rebuild their lives in your country. Previously, US Presidents have steered clear of this emotive and divisive topic.

One month into his administration, Biden tasked his National Security Adviser with looking into “options for protection and resettlement of individuals displaced directly or indirectly from climate change”.

This would mainly affect people from Central America who are increasingly being hit by droughts, intense hurricanes and floods. While most migrate towards their countries’ big cities, some head north to the USA.

At the time, Refugees International’s climate displacement manager Kayly Ober said this order was “extraordinary”.

Now though, she’s disappointed. “When the report was released more than two months late, the Biden administration failed to articulate a clear, full-throated policy vision,” she said.

“The main recommendation of the report was to establish an interagency working group that would continue to grapple with this issue,” she added. “To date, we haven’t gotten an update on the scope and direction of that working group.”

When vice-president Kamala Harris visited Guatemala in June, she told would-be irregular migrants: “Do not come”. The “root causes strategy” she fronted did mention climate change and extreme weather but did not include it as one of the strategy’s so-called five pillars.

Emissions – Unclassified

One simple way to judge Biden is by how much greenhouse gas has gone into the atmosphere while he’s been in charge.

Analysis from the Rhodium Group suggests that 2021’s US greenhouse gas emissions were 6% higher than 2020.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin seized on these figures to undermine the US’s criticisms of China’s rising emissions.

In a press conference, he said: “The US should not get too preoccupied with what’s happening in the neighboring farm to neglect its own crops.

He added: “It should stop playing the old trick of saying a lot but doing a little or merely paying lip service and instead join the doers with concrete action”.

Climate Home News readers noticed too. Giving Biden a one out of ten, Stan Ferguson from Australia said: “Emissions have increased and will continue to increase.”

The 2021 figure is still 5% lower than 2019’s pre-pandemic levels. This 2019 figure was labelled the “lowest carbon ever” by a boastful Donald Trump.

The truth is that these emissions figures reflect the response to Covid far more than climate policies. Biden can’t take credit for the fall from 2019 and he shouldn’t be blamed for the rise from 2020.

Emissions from transportation and power dipped in 2020 and rebounded only partially in 2021. Rising gas prices led to a switch to more carbon-intensive coal.

Without a pandemic-free year under his belt, it’s too early to say if Biden is delivering the structural change needed to decarbonise America.

Transportation and power emissions rebounded in 2021 (Photo: Rhodium Group/Screenshot)

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