Biden’s Unfinished Climate Agenda
Here are the most important climate policies left on the president’s to-do list.
If President Biden chose to sit on his hands for the remainder of his term, he would already have done far more to address climate change than any of his predecessors. But he still has a bunch of unfinished business — half-completed rules that will need to be finalized — that could go a long way toward making sure his initial achievements pay off. And he’s only got a few more months to get it done.
The most consequential items on his to-do list are finalizing two sets of regulations that his administration proposed last spring. The first would require most new cars sold in the U.S., and one-quarter of new heavy-duty trucks, to be electric by 2032; the second would drive more rapid reductions of emissions from the power sector and encourage a shift to renewables. The problem is that if the rules aren’t finalized by the end of this spring, they will be vulnerable to repeal if Republicans win a trifecta in Washington in the fall.
Biden’s biggest climate wins to date have been in the form of incentives, not requirements. The Inflation Reduction Act, the crowning achievement of his presidency, has made hundreds of billions of dollars available to build renewable energy and lower the cost of electric vehicles. Economic modeling by the Rhodium Group, a clean energy research firm, shows that these voluntary incentives make renewable energy so cost-effective that electricity-related emissions could decline by up to 75% from today’s levels by 2035 and transportation emissions could drop by up to 32%.
The operative word, however, is “voluntary.” Just because clean energy and electric vehicles are cheaper doesn’t mean they’ll be adopted with any urgency. Models assume the world optimizes for the best economic outcome, when in reality, there are many non-monetary factors at play — including, simply, resistance to change. The EPA’s rules are a backstop — they are the “sticks” to complement the “carrots” of the IRA.
“The incentives and the standards reinforce one another,” David Doniger, director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. “You can't be sure you'll get the results with just the incentives. And at the same time, the incentives buy down the costs of the standards that lock in the results. So it's a very good combination.”
Many environmental groups say the EPA proposals need to be strengthened before they are finalized. “Even if Biden gets elected into the second term, we won’t have the opportunity to open up these rules again,” Rachel Patterson, the deputy policy director of Evergreen Action, told me. For example, only certain kinds of new natural gas plants are covered by the rules, whereas the group wants to see all new fossil fuel plants covered. It is also pushing the agency to require a more rapid transition to electric heavy duty trucks — or at least one in line with rules already in place in California.
Patterson said these rules aren’t just urgent from a climate perspective. “Getting dirty vehicles off the road is going to improve people's lives through cleaner air, through reduced pollution and health impacts. The same goes for clean power rules.”
The EPA’s most recent timetable shows the agency finalizing the car and truck standards in March and the power plant rules in April.
There’s a number of other ways that Biden could cement his climate legacy in the coming months. His Securities and Exchange Commission, led by Gary Gensler, has proposed climate reporting standards that would require public companies to disclose information to investors about their emissions and vulnerabilities to climate-related risks — these have yet to be finalized.
The number of programs in the Inflation Reduction Act is vast and the money is barely out the door. Patterson said Evergreen wants to see the administration getting the word out about the funding and providing technical assistance to states and communities to make sure these programs get fully taken advantage of.
It has also become increasingly clear that a transformation of the power sector is contingent on reforms to permitting processes and better planning for transmission infrastructure. Biden will need the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to finalize rules that require electric grid operators to incorporate clean energy policies into their planning.
At stake is not just Biden’s legacy, but the country’s commitment to the rest of the world to halve emissions by 2030 — a goal that will help prevent the most disastrous climate outcomes.
“You can see the price we're paying,” Doniger said. “2023 was the hottest year ever, filled with climate driven disasters which killed people and cost gazillions of dollars. There's no reason not to expect more of the same in 2024 and looking out ahead unless we finally clamp down on emissions.”