Skip navigation

The US can get back to work on climate

SEI Senior Scientist Peter Erickson reflects on what a Biden presidency means for climate policy – and what developments to keep an eye on in 2021.

Peter Erickson / Published on 6 November 2020

On November 7, the US presidential election was called: Democrat Joe Biden, the former Vice President to Barack Obama, defeated incumbent Republican President Donald Trump. After four years of obstruction, the US can get back to work on climate change.

The way forward will not be easy. A split Congress – with Republicans likely (though not guaranteed) to keep control of the Senate, and Democrats maintaining their hold on the House – will mean slim hopes for sorely needed domestic legislation. A COVID-19 pandemic is also still raging in the country, adding uncertainty to the future.

Still, climate action is increasingly important to Americans. Most Americans view climate change as a major threat, and in the weeks before the election, 42% of registered voters, and 68% of Biden supporters, said climate change was “very important” to their vote.

With that in mind, here are three climate policy developments to keep an eye on in 2021.


How much does fossil fuel production need to decline?

On 2 December, an update to the Production Gap Report will outline how fast the world needs to decline production of coal, oil, and gas in order to meet climate goals – and the gap between that need and current government plans.

1. Greater international engagement, including on a transition away from fossil fuels

First, the US will re-engage internationally. The country will rejoin the Paris Agreement – that is all but assured, with Biden repeatedly committing to re-entering the agreement “on day one”. The bigger question is: How quickly will the US seek to assume a leadership role?

International momentum has leaped forward in recent weeks, with China, Japan, and Korea making net zero emissions pledges. What can the US now offer? A net zero pledge for the US should, of course, be on the table, and should be set for well before 2060, the target date for China’s pledge. The rub is accomplishing such domestic action without Congress: the power of the President and the executive branch alone are fairly limited (more on that below).

Incoming Vice President Kamala Harris could also make good on her proposal to seek an international agreement to manage the decline of fossil fuel production. The existing Paris Agreement is completely silent on fossil fuels, so new ideas like this – especially coming from the country that is now the world’s largest oil and gas producer – could find a newly receptive audience. (How to address fossil fuel production in a global climate regime is a longstanding area of SEI’s work).

Biden and Harris also have the opportunity to up the ambition on US support for other countries. Biden’s own climate plan during the campaign contained little more than a return to the bare minimum of international support, such as renewing contributions to the Green Climate Fund, plus some ideas about technology transfer that were, frankly, outdated, given the rapid advances in low-carbon technologies by other countries. An effective and equitable global decarbonization will demand more from the US than that. For starters, it would be good to see more serious commitment to financially supporting low-income countries in their clean energy transitions – coupled, of course, with a savvy political strategy to remind Americans of the enduring value of strong international cooperation and assistance.

Read about carbon lock-in

SEI’s Carbon Lock-In Initiative seeks to uncover and address the interwoven social, political, and technical barriers that uphold the high-carbon economy.

2. Economic recovery investment that could build out a low-carbon economy

Second, first steps for domestic action will look more like economic recovery than climate policy. That is out of necessity. The US has had far more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country, and the infection rate – and economic fallout – is only going to get worse. Still, economic recovery efforts can – as they did in the early days of President Obama’s term in 2009 – push hard on building out the low-carbon economy. US energy and transportation infrastructure is out of date, and the country has not yet made a big leap into low-carbon manufacturing. All of this low-carbon investment could mean jobs – lots and lots of jobs – that would mean not only dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but also would help build a durable political constituency for further low-carbon action. (Strategies like this to break carbon lock-in are the subject of one of SEI’s flagship initiatives). Even if the Senate stays in Republican hands, there will be opportunities in budget negotiations to pursue job creation in clean industries, given that many manufacturing-intensive Republican districts could stand to gain.

3. A patchwork of federal and state action, with little to no Congressional help

Third, and finally, serious action in the U.S. will likely have to happen without the help of Congress. If the Senate retains its Republican majority and control, then all signs point to a continuation of that body’s obstruction of climate legislation. (As of November 6, this outcome was not set in stone; at least one Senate seat in Georgia – and possibly both – may face a run-off in January. If Democrats win both and regain control of the Senate, then Congressional action could become more likely, especially if Democrats can first institute some democratic reforms to remove roadblocks in the Senate.)

This is where immediate executive action can help on some fronts, coupled with actions from federal agencies and states. Biden himself can issue executive orders to slow or reverse some of Trump’s damage. Then, once Biden builds back up leadership at federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Department of the Interior, these agencies can begin setting or improving standards for everything from power generation, to cars and trucks, to factories and industry, to the pollution from (and potentially levels of) fossil fuel production. A Biden administration can also be friendlier toward – and help smooth the way for – leading states like California going even further and faster with their own standards.

A mandate for action

For most of the more than 70 million people who voted for Biden (a record), climate policy is an issue of increasing and pressing concern. Progress on national climate policy in the US – slow as it might be – can now resume. A Biden administration should recognize the widespread support they have for serious climate action, and use every opportunity to advance the most ambitious measures possible to decarbonize the country and, in close cooperation with other countries, the world.


Peter Erickson

SEI Affiliated Researcher


Design and development by Soapbox.