Despite challenges, Biden climate policies could advance in US, overseas: experts
Environmental and climate policy under the Biden administration could focus on domestic regulatory adjustments and sector-based greenhouse gas emissions standards, while foreign policy action could work toward finding common ground with China on climate strategy, experts said Jan. 19.
President-elect Joe Biden has an ambitious climate change mitigation agenda that policy and legal experts examined while discussing the prospects for international climate action during a webinar hosted by Columbia University’s Global Center on Energy Policy and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
On the domestic front, the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act could be strengthened, said Michael Gerrard, the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
The Clean Air Act could also be used, he said. Interestingly, while Gerrard was speaking, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit struck down the Trump Administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule which scaled back a power plant regulation plan advanced by the Obama administration called the Clean Power Plan.
Gerrard called the ACE rule “toothless,” but also said he does not expect the Biden administration to re-introduce the CPP due to its “legal vulnerabilities.” However, the Clean Air Act could be used to create new regulations, especially considering the DC Circuit court ruling that found the US Environmental Protection Agency has legal leeway to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Strengthening the National Ambient Air Quality Standards is one possible course of action, Gerrard said, adding there could also be action on financial regulation using climate impact disclosures to drive “better corporate behavior.”
He cited a recent report from the Market Risk Advisory Committee of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission that found climate change poses a major risk to US financial system stability and its ability to sustain the American economy.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is another potential area of climate action as the commission is likely to have a Democrat majority “around June” which could help the approval of power transmission lines needed to connect rural renewable energy projects with urban demand centers, Gerrard said.
“This could all be done with existing authority and not need Congress at all,” he said.
However, with deep partisan divisions in Washington, the new administration will face challenges implementing its climate change plans, said Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy and professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at Columbia University.
Strong domestic action will be needed first, but there are limits, Bordoff said, explaining it is unlikely that Congress would agree to a net-zero emissions by 2050 policy. Congress needs to act on an economy-wide carbon price, but “political consensus is not where it needs to be in Washington,” he said.
Gerrard agreed, saying he is “not optimistic” about an economy-wide carbon price, though maybe a Clean Energy Standard could be achievable.
Bordoff suggested sector-based standards could be designed to “mimic the benefits” of a carbon price where emissions standards are set with tradable permits. That starts to look like a carbon cap and trade system, he said.
At the international level, the “US is not coming to foreign policy from a position of strength,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, academic dean and professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
Gallagher cited the Trump administration’s abandonment of the Paris climate accord as an example and said the US needs to approach foreign policy by first taking “a strong dose of humility.”
Options for international climate action include the US Development Finance Corporation which has not been used for climate. The US could direct those investments toward clean energy and away from fossil fuel development overseas, Gallagher said.
Relations with China are also much more tense now than before Trump took office, she said, adding that the countries need a channel for dialogue.
One way to break the ice on climate could be jointly financing clean energy development in other countries or directly cooperating on clean energy projects in third-party countries, Gallagher said.
And while technology sharing may be off the table for now, one area of cooperation that makes sense would be for China and the US to work on carbon capture and storage demonstration projects, she said.