Biden’s climate reboot is optimistic and puts pressure on Australia

Kate Backshall | United States Fellow

The US has embarked on a dramatically different course to deal with climate change under President Biden. Climate activists and many international allies have let out a collective sigh of relief at the prospect of the world’s second-largest climate polluter acknowledging the “existential threat of climate change” after four years of backsliding. Biden has also committed to hosting a World Leaders Summit on Earth Day in April. This gives his administration limited time to prepare to re-engage with global climate talks.


Biden’s administration has listed climate change second on their list of immediate priorities behind the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of Biden’s harsher critics on the left of politics still have gripes with aspects of his platform but, along with some of the supporters of the previously proposed Green New Deal, many have expressed cautious optimism at the outlined plan. While Biden didn’t run on the Green New Deal, his plan does pay homage to it and what he has proposed is considerably more ambitious than anything any former administration put forth, with a sizeable $2 trillion budget attached.


Within his first weeks, Biden has revoked the permit for the construction of the Keystone pipeline and included a target to conserve 30 per cent of the US’ land and oceans by 2030 (increasing from 12 per cent). He has required all new federal vehicles to be electric and has also committed 40 per cent of investments from the $2 trillion budget to go toward projects in disadvantaged communities. These changes are being implemented by incorporating climate projects into numerous actions rather than through one sweeping bill to avoid them being obstructed like in previous administrations. The economic recovery from the pandemic will play a vital part in delivering opportunities to decarbonise. Biden framed his plan around creating green jobs and growth rather than about reducing footprints.


Biden has hit the ground running to reposition the US to wield influence in this space again on the international stage. In an executive order, Biden has insisted the US will prioritise climate in the UN Security Council, its trade agreements, and all its international engagements. He has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and began a review to reinstate many of the rollbacks that former President Trump enacted which undermined environmental progress.


After four years of putting allies offside and further souring the US’ relations with China, the US’ new commitments are considered a potential opportunity for increased cooperation, but this will also present challenges. With the US striving for carbon neutrality by 2050, it joins about 100 other countries that have made similar pledges. At the upcoming UN Climate Summit in November, nations are expected to be proposing more ambitious plans to curb global warming as the present plans are insufficient.


EU leaders have optimistically stated they hope to work with the US to influence stronger global commitments to net-zero emissions. Within a newly drafted agenda for US-EU relations, the Europeans have supported the concept of a green tech alliance. As part of its push to reach carbon neutrality, under the European Green Deal, EU imports are expected to eventually have tariffs imposed upon them based on the emissions created in their manufacture. The tariffs should ensure European manufacturers, who will be facing regulations to reduce their emissions, will not be at a disadvantage to importers. Biden has alluded support for a similar carbon price system but, while China is also considering domestic carbon pricing, thus far, Beijing is pushing back on the idea of countries imposing these at their borders.


Prime Minister Morrison hopes to also work with the US on the green technology front and has stated that the US has not yet placed additional pressure on Australia to improve its climate commitments. However, the change in the US’ stance now leaves Australia noticeably out of step with the broader international community. Australia was again not invited to speak at a recent United Nations Climate Action Summit because of its continued feet-dragging. With global carbon pricing being negotiated and mounting international and domestic pressure, if Morrison wants Australia to be at the table, he may be squeezed into offering more progressive targets.


Predictably, many Republicans have expressed concerns about Biden’s plan’s cost and its potential impact on jobs. Some members from oil-producing states have attempted to block Biden from pausing oil and gas drilling on federal lands through the courts while others tried to block the rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement. That said, the Democrats hold a slim majority in both houses and several Republicans who have broken away from the party’s denialist stance are looking for common ground with Democrats on this issue. This limits the likelihood of Republicans successfully stifling progress in this space, at least until the 2022 midterm elections which could change the balance of power once more.


Kate Backshall is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.