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Environmental Policies and Climate Action To Look For in 2021

Environmental Policies and Climate Action To Look For in 2021

Nov 17th 2020

Over the past four years, President Trump has made it painfully clear how little he believes in and cares about climate change. He has appointed numerous climate change deniers into key positions, and has worked hard to roll back as many environmental regulations as possible.

The Environmental Protection Agency has significantly weakened regulations of power plants, transportation emissions, and land protection. The Department of Interior has rolled back land and wildlife protections, opening up this land for more oil and gas leasing and logging. Just yesterday, the administration announced that portions of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be opened up for drilling, with companies now able to bid on development rights in this pristine landscape.

What plans do President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have in store? How much can they roll back? How much progress can they make? And how long will it take to make real climate progress? We don't have all the answers of course, but this post summarizes what we've been reading and highlights some environmental wins that will hopefully be in store.

THE BIDEN PLAN

Biden has been clear and consistent that his plan is not "The Green New Deal." Though his plan is not as comprehensive, it is aggressively focused on curbing carbon emissions and creating jobs.

The plan is said to cost $2 trillion over four years and would be paid for in part by rolling back Trump's tax cuts. Some highlights of the plan:

  • Retooling the auto industry for low-emission vehicles
  • Upgrading millions of buildings to be more energy efficient
  • Constructing 1.5 million new sustainable housing units
  • Clean up of pollution across oil and gas wells and coal mining sites
  • Instituting legislation that would mandate emissions cuts from electric utilities
  • Checks to households buying electric vehicles and rebates to households that trade in gas guzzlers for more efficient vehicles
  • Carbon-free power sector by 2035
  • Improving public transit and establishing infrastructure to support electric vehicles
  • Incentivizing auto companies to offer more zero-emission vehicles
  • Allocating 40% of the funds to establishing clean energy in historically disadvantaged areas.

WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN RIGHT AWAY, WHAT NEEDS CONGRESS (AND PATIENCE)?

On Day One, Biden is likely to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. While this will be a largely a symbolic move early on, it is an important one that will help mobilize and re-energize climate action across the world.

Biden will begin appointing cabinet officers right away, and will bring on individuals who recognize climate change as a real threat that can be reversed by deliberate and aggressive action. This type of thinking will trickle into leadership actions across the board.

Many across the private sector have been ready to make renewable energy investments. There are offshore wind projects ready to go that have been held up waiting for federal approval. A Biden-Harris administration will likely move towards approving these quickly, and the private sector will be more incentivized to get going on their projects knowing they have the support of the government behind them.

Quite a few of Trump's actions were established by Executive Order, and can be reversed quickly, with a stroke of a pen.

But, some of the most important and ambitious environmental policy changes will take time - either waiting through a rulemaking and commenting period or will require the support of Congress.

For example, establishing a clean energy standard that requires utilities to generate a certain amount of power using renewables is an important step in the Biden Plan, but will require legislation, which will require Congress and may be challenging.

Alternatively, regulations within the Environmental Protection Agency must go through a rulemaking and commenting period. Adding back regulations that were eliminated or reduced under the Trump administration may take time, but are unlikely to face the same level of gridlock that is anticipated for climate legislation.

WHAT SEEMS MOST IMPORTANT?

That's a tough one, because really "everything" is important in this country's (and the world's) fight to reverse climate change and other looming environmental dangers. But, it certainly helps to think about the key priorities in categories.

Clean Energy, Clean Power: Obama's Clean Power Plan was a great step in the right direction. Obama's Clean Power Plan was a sweeping new policy aimed at reducing the emissions of power plants. Under the plan, the EPA set a goal for each state for how much to cut its power plant emissions. States could determine how to achieve those goals - by moving to natural gas, expanding renewables, investing in nuclear, etc. It was set to lower 2030 emissions by 30% compared to 2005 levels. Unfortunately, Trump's Affordable Clean Energy rule was instituted last year, replacing the Clean Power Plan. This Clean Energy rule will have the uninspiring impact of reducing carbon emissions less than 1 percent if fully implemented in 2030. We must do better than this, and clean power is certainly a key component of the Biden Plan. In order to be successful, Biden will have to navigate his options strategically, to determine how to best leverage environmental law and the EPA's authority to get the energy sector on track to curb their emissions and adopt cleaner practices and more renewable sources of energy.

Clean Transportation: Transportation is actually the number one emitter of carbon in the US. Trump rolled back the Obama era program to boost the fuel economy of cars and SUVs to 54.5 miles per gallon by Model Year 2025. It is time to reinstate clean transportation through mpg and zero emissions vehicle targets.

Land and Wildlife Protections: Trump rolled back dozens of land protections, endangered species protections and leased a record amount of federal and BLM land (the Department of the Interior auctioned off over 100,000 acres of public land across nine states in 2020 alone). In one show of conservation support, the Trump administration did sign the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act into law, which provides funding for public lands. The protection of our lands, watersheds, wetlands, and wildlife is essential to reversing climate change. Many of these lands serve as carbon sinks and contribute to cleaner air and water. It is likely that Biden will use the power of Executive Order to help protect lands. He has stated that he will permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by banning drilling, an sign an executive order that will conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters on his first day in office. He is likely to increase protections of national monuments. 

Landfill Gas Emissions: Landfills are the third-largest contributor of methane pollution in this country, and they emit pollutants like benzene and volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog. In 2016, the Obama administration approved a rule that required states to submit their plans for controlling landfill gas within nine months. Over the course of the last four years, and constant delays and rule amendments, states now have three years to act on this. Biden is likely to reinstate these rules, though he may face legal battles from deregulation-minded courts.

Waste Management, Recycling Infrastructure and Supply Chains: Biden has said little about recycling, composting and the recycling supply chain, but this should become a component of his plan. Currently, recycling and composting is highly decentralized and inconsistent, and driven by the needs of recyclers (i.e. households and businesses who want to feel good about how they dispose of things) rather than the needs of the companies buying up reclaimed material. There is tremendous opportunity to invest in domestic capacity to reclaim and remanufacture all types of recycled goods, and then in turn to invest in equipment across MRFs such that they can effectively sort and clean their bales of recycled goods. These steps can turn composting and recycling, which are both fraught with operational challenges and sustainability concerns, into key drivers of improved sustainability and reduced carbon emissions.