By Sam O’Mara
One of recently elected US President Joe Biden’s main campaign points was to invest in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure, undoing many of the policies of his predecessor. The Biden administration feel that time is running out to put the US on a more environmentally friendly path, stating that it is necessary to “achieve net-zero emissions, economy wide, by no later than 2050”. This poses an important turning point in the geo-political landscape, with the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in history, the U.S, competing with China, the current largest emitter, to revolutionise their economies in order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels . Despite only having achieved their long-term goal of being the world’s largest producer of oil and gas in the last decade, the U.S will now have to turn their attention to improving their renewable energy production. China currently dominates the production of renewable energy. They are responsible for 70% and 50% of the world’s solar panel and wind turbine production respectively, and benefit from an abundance of rare metals required in the production of batteries and wind technology. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a glimpse into the future, with oil demand falling by a fifth in March. This has highlighted the importance for the US to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels if they are to keep their status as the world’s leading economy ahead of China .
So, what does Biden’s environmental proposal include? The plan aims to orient the post pandemic recovery around creating jobs in renewable energy and the construction of sustainable infrastructure with a two trillion-dollar investment. This includes jobs in electric automobile factories, weatherizing buildings, constructing new sustainable homes and infrastructure as well as environmental R&D roles. The plan also includes further aims to have a carbon pollution free energy sector by 2035, modernizing 4 million homes as well as building another 1.5 million, pursuing environmental justice and making the US automobile industry the world leader in the 21st century. These new energy efficient buildings are hoped to pay for themselves via savings in energy costs. The Biden administration also hopes to change consumer behaviour to be more eco-conscious through a system of rebates on purchases like electric cars, as well as a commitment to the social cost of carbon being accounted for during the cost benefit analysis of future federal projects .
These are lofty ambitions, and some may argue beyond the realm of what a president can do in a single term. So, is this plan doable? First let’s consider Biden’s track record. Despite being in office only briefly, Biden has already begun the process of undoing a lot of the actions of Trump. He took no time in re-joining the Paris Agreement, halted the construction of the Keystone pipeline and reviewed many of the rules on public lands regarding endangered species, air and water that were rolled back or removed by Trump. The nature of the legal system in the U.S means that many of these actions will take 2-3 years to complete, limiting what the president can realistically achieve in a 4-year term . During his long career in politics, he introduced the Global Climate Protection Act in the 80’s encouraging a joint commitment on environmental change between the USA and USSR and criticised George Bush for failing to set targets for emission reductions in 1992. More recently however, he’s supported controversial fracking as a senator, making his record somewhat mixed when it comes to climate change .
Perhaps the largest stumbling block is how the two trillion-dollar project will be funded, bearing in mind this is 5 times the value of annual domestic electricity sales in the US . Raising these funds seems even more of a challenge in light of a post pandemic recession, though Biden hopes this policy will create jobs to help offset the effect of rising unemployment. Biden is planning on funding his climate plan via tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations, reversing Trumps corporation tax cut which took the rate from 35% to 21%. However, some have proposed plans which won’t damage the margins for businesses already struggling from the pandemic. Using a carbon emissions auction scheme would both raise the necessary funds whilst incentivizing businesses to take a more environmentally friendly approach and aim for net zero carbon emissions. In this system, businesses would have to bid for the right to emit a certain level of carbon, with larger polluters having to pay more for their right to pollute. This would also have the effect of levelling the playing field between businesses that practice low emission standards and those who don’t. Though such a system would take a while to implement and wouldn’t provide the short-term funds Biden requires for his infrastructure and renewable energy plans. .
The costs may also be passed on to the low and middle classes in America who could face higher energy costs, something that has been observed in California which has been trying to reach green energy goals for some years. There is also an issue of the land required for these projects with local authorities likely to block large solar or wind farms being built on their land. Over 200 government entities have blocked the construction of wind projects since 2015 .
Perhaps COVID-19 has offered the chance for world powers and their governments to base recovery plans around the construction more sustainable economies. This is a strategy that both the US and the EU seem to be adopting. So, there is no better time to invest in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure, although Biden has many an obstacle he will have to overcome if he wants this investment to be successful. The U.S are in a race against China to create a sustainable economy, their success in this will have major consequences in the coming years.
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2. “Power in the 21st Century”, The Economist, September 19th, 2020, pg 11- 22
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4. Coral Davenport, “Biden’s restoring of environmental rules rolled back by Trump could take years”, The Independent, January 23rd, 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/trump-biden-environment-climate-crisis-b1791642.html
5. Louise Boyle, “What are Joe Biden’s plans to fight climate change?”, The Independent, January 21st, 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/biden-climate-change-plan-paris-agreement-b1790057.html
6. Bruce Ackerman, “With a Single Climate Initiative, Biden Could Generate $4 Trillion for Green Investment”, Slate, December 18th, 2020, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/12/joe-biden-climate-plan-green-auction.html
7. Robert Bryce, “Joe Biden’s $2 Trillion Energy Plan Ignores Cost, Land-Use Conflicts”, Forbes, July 14th, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertbryce/2020/07/14/joe-bidens-2-trillion-energy-plan-ignores-cost-land-use-conflicts/?sh=3988533f4336