US to rejoin the Paris Agreement as Biden announces policy changes

25 January 2021

President Biden giving his Inaugural Address (Source: White House)US President Biden used his Inauguration Day on 20 January to launch a domestic and international response to climate change that reversed many of the policies of his predecessor.

President Biden signed executive orders to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, revoke the Keystone XL oil pipeline’s federal permit and pledged to “review” a list of regulatory actions by the previous administration intended to support high-emitting industries.

Biden’s State Department sent the necessary paperwork to the Paris Agreement stating that the USA will rejoin the on 19 February, 107 days after it withdrew.

The new administration in a press statement promised to “exercise global leadership” in advancing Paris Agreement objectives. However, the USA will still have to formulate a 2030 pledge supporting the Paris objective of containing warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” with efforts to achieve a 1.5 Celsius limit. The small Democratic majority in Congress means the Biden administration will have to depend on state and local partners to help demonstrate emissions cuts, and the consultation process is expected to last for months.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the USA is responsible for 15% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Before withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the USA aimed to reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28%  below 2005 levels by 2025. Biden is expected to strengthen this 2025 target and submit a much more ambitious goal for 2030.

"The United States urgently needs to embrace a greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge," Biden's climate plan states. "Getting to a 100% clean energy economy is not only an obligation, it's an opportunity." Biden has indicated his intention to commit $1700 billion over the next ten years to help achieve that transformation, while "leveraging additional private sector and state and local investment" for a total of around $5000bn.

On 21 January, US special climate envoy John Kerry called European Union climate policy chief Frans Timmermans kicking off renewed transatlantic cooperation on tackling global warming. A European Commission spokesperson said Timmermans had “discussed our ambitions to work with the US and other partners to raise global ambition at COP26 in Glasgow”. Biden is also expected to convene a summit of leaders from large-emitting countries within the first 100 days of his presidency, as part of a diplomatic push to rally urgent global climate action.

United Nations secretary-general António Guterres welcomed US plans to re-enter the Paris Agreement on Climate Change “and join the growing coalition of governments, cities, states, businesses and people taking ambitious action to confront the climate crisis”. He added: “We look forward to the leadership of the United States in accelerating global efforts towards net-zero, including by bringing forward a new nationally determined contribution with ambitious 2030 targets and climate finance in advance of COP26 in Glasgow later this year. I am committed to working closely with President Biden and other leaders to overcome the climate emergency and recover better from COVID-19.”

Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said the USA has taken the important step to rejoin the Paris Agreement. “NEI looks forward to working with the Biden administration and Congress on the development and implementation of federal policies and legislative proposals needed to meet our national commitments as defined by the agreement. The climate crisis is a global problem and requires a global solution. We are proud to be part of that solution."

The Biden administration also made known plans to reverse four years of deregulatory and anti-science policymaking at the EPA, including a list of agency actions slated for “review”. EPA policies and staffing will also be reviewed. These include former President Donald Trump’s eleventh-hour effort to make future greenhouse gas regulations contingent on a sector contributing at least 3% of overall US emissions. EPA had promulgated this rule, which is not effective until March, instead of reversing an Obama-era rule for new coal-fired power plants. It is therefore vulnerable to the Biden administration’s freeze order for last-minute Trump administration rulemakings.

Also up for review is the 2019 rule repealing and replacing former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan for existing power plants. The Biden EPA is now expected to scrap the rule and replace it with an update that can help achieve the goal of making the US power grid carbon neutral by 2035. This will impact on two EPA regulations finalised in 2020 limiting the way oil and gas leakage is regulated.

In addition, Biden’s list includes EPA’s recently finalised greenhouse gas rule for airplanes, as well as the Transportation Department’s revision of fuel economy rules for vehicles. EPA under Biden is likely to reinstate joint standards for fuel economy and greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions.

The new Biden administration also announced plans to re-establish the Obama-era interagency process regulating the social cost of carbon and methane. The Biden memo announced the coming release of “an interim social cost of greenhouse gas schedule to ensure that agencies account for the full costs of greenhouse gas emissions, including climate risk, environmental justice and intergenerational equity”.

President Biden giving his Inaugural Address (Source: White House)

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