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Biden takes government-wide approach to fighting climate change

27 January 2021 Amena Saiyid

President Joe Biden launched government-wide actions through an executive order on climate change that will now be coordinated by a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy.

Climate change is an "existential threat" to the US, Biden said 27 January in a televised address, as he called for a "unified" national and global response.

Led by the first-ever National Climate Advisor, Gina McCarthy, who headed the US Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama, and Deputy National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi, the new office will implement Biden's domestic climate agenda.

McCarthy and Zaidi will coordinate the work of a National Climate Task Force, which will enable a "whole-of-government approach" across 21 federal agencies and departments to combat climate crisis.

Biden has made climate change one of the top priorities of his administration and deemed it a national security risk. Shortly after being sworn in, Biden signed an order to pave the way for the US to rejoin the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, a non-binding treaty that aspires to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

The "whole-of-government approach", as Biden described it, is focused on reducing the federal government's carbon footprint through purchasing carbon-free electricity and zero-emission vehicles, freezing new permits for oil and natural gas exploration on federal lands and ramping up renewable energy generation from offshore wind sources by 2030. The order also calls for expediting the siting and transmission infrastructure from clean energy sources and spurring development and deployment of clean technologies like battery storage.

Clean, affordable, and cheap

"It is my goal to have a 100% carbon-free electric sector by 2035," Biden said, noting that 84% of US electricity expected to come online in 2021 is from clean energy.

"Why? Because it is clean, it is affordable, and in most cases it is cheaper," he added.

At the same time, Biden said he is creating an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization that will investigate technical assistance, grants, and other opportunities to revitalize communities that have lost jobs because they were home to coal mines or relied on oil and gas revenues.

Plugging leaks in oil and gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mine land will create well-paying union jobs in coal, oil, and gas-focused communities while restoring natural assets, the economies, and curbing methane emissions, according to the White House.

Biden also created a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council that is set to work toward minimizing the impact on minority and low-income communities that have suffered the effects of pollution by oil and gas operations.

To that end, the order also creates an Office of Climate Justice at the Department of Justice "because we know the communities who are being hurt, and we know we have to start enforcing the standards today and ensuring that they are part of the solution and in places that we can invest," McCarthy said.

Biden wants to make sure that all communities benefit from the transition to clean energy and that is why 40% of funds slated for investment in clean technologies will be directed to disadvantaged communities, she added.

Biden has spent more time campaigning on climate issues than any other president, and "science is telling us we don't have a moment to lose," McCarthy said.

Global leader

In addition to taking steps at home, Biden is making sure that climate change is addressed on a global scale as well, John Kerry, Biden's special envoy on climate, told reporters. "We are going to make sure that climate is central to foreign policy planning, diplomacy, and national security preparedness," Kerry said.

He said the order commissions a first-ever national intelligence estimate on the security implications posed by climate change.

It also orders the Department of State to prepare a legislative package on the Kigali Amendment. The order directs the agency to prepare a transmittal package, seeking Senate advice and consent on the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which seeks to gradually reduce the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons.

If fully ratified and enforced globally, "the amendment could hold the Earth's temperature by 0.5 of an entire degree," Kerry said.

Biden wants the US to be the global leader in tackling climate change and clean energy technologies. He plans to hold a "major economies forum" with world leaders on climate on Earth Day, which falls on April 22. The US intends to announce its revised national determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement prior to this summit, Kerry said.

Neither Kerry nor McCarthy indicated whether an updated US greenhouse gas reduction goal would reflect Biden's net-zero carbon pledge. McCarthy said the NDC would be drawn up after consulting with the heads of each federal agency serving on the task force. According to the order, the heads of each of these agencies have 120 days to draw up a draft action plan that outlines steps to bolster resilience and adaptation to climate impacts.

'Wasting no time'

"President Biden is wasting no time ramping up the US climate effort both at home and abroad," Bob Perciasepe, who heads the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

The executive order signed 27 January demonstrates a "whole-of-government approach" to tackling the climate challenge, from measures to grow clean energy and electric vehicle use to prioritizing justice for marginalized communities, said Perciasepe. "What's more, with his plan to soon convene world leaders, the president is quickly leveraging stronger US resolve to spur stronger global action."

Likewise, Heather Zichal, chief executive officer of the American Clean Power Association, also hailed the presidential directives because they will help the US transition to clean, renewable energy.

"Justice for disadvantaged communities and welcoming legacy energy workers into the clean power workforce are vital aspects of the success of the clean energy transition," said Zichal.

The US Chamber of Commerce endorsed Biden's "whole-of-government approach" as well as a separate presidential order restoring scientific integrity to the federal rulemaking process. The chamber objected to the "indefinite ban" on new oil and gas leases for public lands though.

"The impacts of climate change are far reaching and it will take smart policies across a wide spectrum of issues to achieve meaningful global emissions reductions while also supporting economic growth and job creation," Marty Durbin, the chamber's senior vice president for policy, wrote.

Durbin said Biden's decision to pause new oil and gas permits was "bad policy and counterproductive to the goals of supporting the economy and combatting climate change."

Posted 27 January 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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