President Biden is committed to kick starting a new era of global climate action at a time when clean technologies have never been more competitive and public engagement with the environment is at all time high - myriad possibilities abound
Are we about to discover what is possible?
Joe Biden has made a desire to unleash a new era of bold US climate action a central plank of his electoral mandate, and all the signs since his victory last November suggest he is serious about delivering on his promises. A seriousness that culminated in his evocative warning in his inaugural address yesterday that the world was experiencing a "cry for survival" from the planet itself.
He may have triangulated a little during his campaign, keeping a studied distance from some of the more vocal advocates for the Green New Deal agenda as he sought to burnish his moderate appeal. But since then his every pronouncement and policy move on climate action has belied fears that his centrist impulses would lead to a dilution of his green ambitions.
Biden is now set to appoint what has already been touted as the most experienced and informed team of climate and energy policy experts ever to serve a US administration, and he yesterday made environmental action the centrepiece of an initial wave of symbolic executive orders that promise to be both hugely impactful and highly symbolic.
Within hours of his inauguration Biden had started the 30 day process for America to return to the Paris Agreement, reimposed methane pollution limits on the oil and gas industry, banned fossil fuel permitting on federal land, revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, instructed all federal agencies to review any and all Trump era policies that harm the environment, and ordered the government procurement system and its $500bn budget to switch to clean energy and zero emission vehicles.
And that's just the start. Major green projects will become a key component of all spending bills, regulations on climate-related financial risks are likely on the way, as is a concerted push to encourage states to accelerate climate action on every front. The diplomatic effort to secure a wave of credible national net zero strategies and a finalisation of the Paris Agreement at the COP26 Climate Summit in November is about to get turbocharged.
As a fossil fuel industry lobbyists told the New York Times this week, "I underestimated the level of seriousness that these guys had about this."
These are all encouraging developments in and of themselves (especially the nervousness of fossil fuel industry lobbyists), but what is really exciting is the signal the Biden administration could send over the next four years and the template it could provide.
President Trump was a moral abomination on multiple levels - the racism, the corruption, the constitutional vandalism, the nepotism, the incitements to violence, the unforgivable deployment of overt cruelty as policy goal that resulted in traumatised toddlers locked in cages. But long after the Trump Presidency is consigned to a particularly sordid chapter in the history books, his decision to actively oppose climate action will continue to have real world impacts.
One of the many tragedies of the Trump administration was that he was elected at the precise point when world leaders had committed to ramping up climate action and clean technologies neared both cost competitiveness and technological feasibility. He then proceeded to spend four years torpedoing that political consensus and obstructing that technological progress. We don't get that time back.
Biden now promises an unprecedented reversal. We are about to find out what happens when the leadership of an economic superpower throws itself fully behind the net zero project. When a man incapable of compassion or understanding is replaced by one who cares and thinks.
We have some pointers to how this could play out from Europe. The UK, Germany, France, and others have all demonstrated how it is possible to turbocharge clean tech development, grow a modern economy while cutting emissions, and sketch out credible pathways towards full decarbonisation.
But none of these governments have access to the bully pulpit in the Oval Office, nor the policy levers for the world's most powerful economy and preeminent innovation ecosystem. Biden has the potential to take the global net zero transition to a new level. We are about to find out how fast the green industrial revolution can move when technological, business, and political leadership are pulling in unison.
None of this is to suggest success is guaranteed. He has just four years and will face intense opposition from Republicans in Congress and their insurrection-baiting media echo chamber. Having won an election on a platform promising to return the US to the Paris Agreement Biden is already facing criticism from GOP Senators who accuse him of caring more about the people of Paris than the people of Pittsburgh. That these are the same Senators who a few weeks ago strived to disenfranchise the people of Pittsburgh after they voted overwhelmingly for a Biden Presidency does not spark a single second of reflection from the moral void that the Party of Lincoln has become.
Biden's primary task will be ending the death and devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. His administration will be stalked by the credible threat of white supremacist violence and a political opposition that will seek to weaponise the culture war at every turn. He will undoubtedly be forced to compromise and dilute his climate plans on occasions as he seeks to navigate a hugely complex transition that will inevitably result in the retirement of some iconic American industries. Some of the biggest challenges will come from his own side, as he seeks to balance the demands of coal-state Senators with those of the young activists who demand radical reforms. Meanwhile, anyone who thinks Trump (of both the Donald and Ivanka varieties) could never defeat Biden or Kamala Harris in a 2024 re-run of last year's election has not been paying attention.
But all that is for the future. Biden's intentions are absolutely clear, his mandate obvious, his support - from the public and businesses alike - is widespread. His overt backing for the complete transformation of the US economy within just three decades, means the world is suddenly alive with fresh possibilities. Savvy businesses and investors should seize them.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
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