February 01, 2021

Biden Administration Enacts Sweeping Climate Change Measures

4 min

The Biden administration continued the rapid implementation of its climate change agenda with the signing of an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. It would be an understatement to describe this order as a u-turn from the previous administration. Rather, it represents a rapid acceleration in the opposite direction (powered by a zero-emission engine). This order builds on President Biden's recent environment and climate change order and sets the ambitious goal of achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050.

The order requires far-reaching reforms that will impact every sector of the federal government and the economy. On a fundamental level, the order establishes a "whole-of-government" approach to climate and environmental issues, setting up a National Climate Task Force that will "facilitate the organization and deployment of a Government-wide approach to combat the climate crisis." The task force will coordinate between federal agencies, states, local governments, and leaders across various economy sectors, in order to implement key federal actions. In a similar vein, all federal agencies must submit a climate change "action plan" to the task force. Moreover, as a continuation of the policies announced in the series of equity executive orders, all agencies will also be required to factor environmental justice issues into their decision-making.

This whole-of-government approach represents a tectonic shift in the federal approach to climate change. It indicates that the new administration will incorporate climate goals and policies into virtually every agency program, not just the most obvious ones at U.S. EPA or the Department of the Interior. For instance, urban planning and national transportation systems managed through the U.S. DOT will also reflect climate and resilience priorities. In short, the Biden administration is requiring climate change and environmental health issues to be embedded in the decision-making process across all parts of the federal government. This new approach, and the regulatory reforms anticipated by the policies articulated in the climate change order, will impact a range of industries, including housing, construction, infrastructure, and even the insurance industry.

In terms of specific policy changes, two themes run through the order and have already triggered strong political responses in Congress and from major industry groups: putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel leasing and exploration on federal lands, and accelerating the development of renewable energy and technology. In addition to pausing all new oil and gas leases on public lands and offshore waters, the administration promises a review of all existing leasing and permitting practices. Sparking even more controversy, the administration promises a review of the royalty system for mineral and energy exploration on federal lands and the potential elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. In order to accomplish its aggressive carbon-free goals, the administration also aims to double renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030 and to promote clean energy and infrastructure development. The federal government will also use its purchasing power to advance these goals, such as by electrifying the federal vehicle and postal service fleets.

On foreign policy, the order attempts to position the United States as a global leader in addressing climate change, including by hosting a Leaders' Climate Summit and taking a more active role in international forums. But this aspect of the order does more than simply commit to attending conferences – it also seeks to focus international financing on climate change. The policies set out in the order include the development of a "climate finance plan" to assist developing countries, and promoting an end to the international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy.

President Biden's executive action does not, by itself, ensure follow-through on many of these initiatives. Congress, through the power of the purse, will have a major say in how or whether certain of these policies will be implemented. In many instances, such as with policies concerning energy exploration on federal lands, it is highly probable that interested parties will contest such policies aggressively in federal courts – now with many Trump appointees sitting on the bench. But the executive action has already triggered a major response from the private sector, as evidenced by the General Motors announcement that it will phase out all internal combustion passenger vehicles by 2035. There is no doubt that President Biden has sent a strong message to the country and to international partners that the entire apparatus of the U.S. government will be active on all fronts related to climate and environmental justice issues. While many of these changes will take time to be implemented through legislation, budget action, and, ultimately, agency regulation, this order will have significant impacts for every sector of the U.S. economy.