President Joe Biden continues to deliver on his election promise to accelerate progress on climate change, quickly drafting a list of what he can accomplish on his own early in his term.
On Wednesday January 27, he will sign a second set of decrees and memoranda on climate change that order federal agencies to buy zero-emission vehicles and carbon-free electricity made in the United States, end nearly all new oil and gas leases on public lands, and phase out fossil fuel subsidies.
Biden has also placed climate change at the center of national security planning, forcing federal agencies to assess how increasingly severe heatwaves, fires, floods and famines could ignite global conflicts. The actions will also begin the process of creating new climate emission reduction targets for the United States under the Paris climate agreement.
Latest guidelines follow Biden’s climate actions during his first day in power, which included kicking off the process of rallying the Paris Agreement and establishing new regulations on methane emissions, vehicle fuel economy standards and more.
A big boost on the market
The orders will give a major boost to the domestic market for renewable energies such as wind, solar and geothermal power plants, as well as electric or hydrogen vehicles. It will direct billions of federal dollars to these industries while creating regulatory certainty that will make it easier to finance new projects and factories, says Josh Freed, who heads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a think tank for center-left in Washington, DC.
The vehicle order, for example, could potentially amount to around 650,000 government cars, trucks and buses, potentially increasing the size of the domestic market by almost 40%. Only an estimate 1.6 million rechargeable electric vehicles had been sold in the United States at the end of last year, and less than 10,000 hydrogen vehicles since 2012, according to InsideEVs.
However, agencies will likely only replace vehicles when they reach the end of their useful life, so full turnover will surely take years.
It is not yet clear how the clean power purchase order will work or what it will achieve at this point, including whether it will require agencies to get a certain percentage or all of their electricity from sources. low carbon emissions like wind, solar and nuclear power. It is also not immediately obvious how government agencies will achieve these goals given the limited control over the mix of power-generating sources on local grids.
Erin Sikorsky, Deputy Director of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, DC, applauded the order’s emphasis on national security.
Without incorporating detailed assessments of changing climatic conditions, the United States will fail to recognize the potential for regional conflicts that can arise from things like prolonged droughts; cannot properly prepare and equip its troops and bases abroad; and will not understand how the power dynamics are likely to change between nations and non-state actors, she said. For example, famines could increase recruitment among terrorist groups, and warming conditions could boost economic output and regional influence in countries like Russia.
Elevate environmental justice
The new decrees included many additional directives and announcements. Among them:
- Biden will host a climate summit with other world leaders on April 22, Earth Day. It is a clear attempt to reset the country’s international climate diplomacy efforts.
- Biden also called on agencies to take action to address the disproportionate impact of environmental and climate threats on underprivileged communities and to ensure they receive 40% of the benefits of any related federal investment.
- The president also asked the secretary of agriculture to start exploring ways to encourage farming practices that can reduce emissions and store more carbon in the soil; and called for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps initiative to get Americans to work to plant trees and restore public lands and waters.
- A new memorandum enhances the role of science and expertise in federal policy making, directing agencies to “make evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.”
- Biden has also established or re-established numerous climate and science advisory groups, including the White House Interagency Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and a National Climate Task Force that will bring together leaders from 21 agencies and departments.
The limits of decrees
At this point, Biden is effectively checking the things he can accomplish on climate change through executive orders, rather than pushing new laws through Congress.
But there are limits to what he can achieve with this approach. Executive Orders are in effect instructions on how federal agencies should operate, but they cannot overturn existing laws or create new powers for the presidency. Presidents also generally cannot spend money that Congress has not already authorized, although they can determine how it is spent, as Biden appears to do with clean electricity and vehicles.
The precise limits of what can and cannot be achieved by decrees are the subject of heated debate and frequent legal challenges. The other downside is that they can also be unilaterally flipped from administration to administration, as Trump has done with many orders from President Barack Obama and Biden is now doing with Trump’s.
Accelerating the shift to zero-emission technologies enough to avoid a 2 ° C warming, the stated goal of the Paris Agreement, will clearly require legislation. The real climate test for Biden’s climate agenda will be whether he can achieve it with just thin Democratic Senate control.