US President Joe Biden committed the United States to rejoining the Paris climate accord, blocked an oil pipeline project and froze Arctic drilling in a raft of executive orders signed hours after taking office Wednesday.
But for the Democrat who has pledged to roll back four years of environmental harm done by his predecessor Donald Trump, that’s just the start.
Experts say that Biden will have to rebuild the credibility the US lost in the eyes of the international community, by setting concrete goals for emissions reductions on the path to net zero by 2050.
Next, he’ll need to realize his $2 trillion climate plan, which would place green action at the heart of the economy and its recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, while ensuring a long term shift that can’t be rapidly undone under a future Republican president.
“I think it’s important that the US shows that it means business at home,” David Waskow of the World Resources Institute said.
The WRI is advocating for the US to set a 45-50 percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.
Biden has also said he will convene the leaders of major economies for a climate summit within 100 days of his inauguration.
Among the executive orders Wednesday, the Biden administration submitted a letter to the UN that formally triggers a 30-day process to reenter the Paris climate agreement.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the action and the prospect of “the leadership of the United States in accelerating global efforts towards net zero” emissions, calling on the president to adopt an “ambitious” plan to fight global warming.
French President Emmanuel Macron lauded Biden’s decision to return to the accord, telling him “welcome back” in a congratulatory message.
Biden also scrapped the Keystone XL pipeline connecting the Alberta oil sands to coastal refineries in Texas -- a move that threatens to strain ties with Canada.
Still, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had pressed Biden to reverse his decision on the pipeline, vowed to “work together to advance climate action and clean economic growth.” The two leaders are due to speak Friday.
Beyond Paris, the US federal government has numerous levers at its disposal, from imposing strict methane limits on new oil and gas infrastructure, to gearing federal contracts towards renewable energy and zero-emissions vehicles.
The Trump administration took an axe to a host of environmental regulations, and a fact sheet sent to reporters from the new administration vowed to “immediately review and take appropriate action” on all these measures.
Biden on Wednesday also placed a temporary moratorium on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where Trump’s administration had issued leases on its last full day in office.
While former secretary of state John Kerry will lead US climate negotiations abroad, the domestic front will be headed up by Gina McCarthy, whom Biden has picked as the first national climate adviser.
Biden will present to Congress next month an infrastructure-focused “Build Back Better Recovery Plan” -- separate from the $1.9 trillion Covid and economic stimulus package he’s seeking.
This is where things can potentially become more tricky, given the Democratic Party’s razor thin control of the Senate.
The package is expected to be similar to the $2 trillion green climate plan Biden outlined during his campaign.
It promises “to meet the climate crisis, build a clean energy economy, address environmental injustice, and create millions of good-paying union jobs.”
“The challenge will be to bring Republicans on board with a clean energy infrastructure package that could systematically reduce American emissions,” Paul Bledsoe, a climate advisor to former president Bill Clinton, said.
Bledsoe predicted Biden will initially be expected to try to work with Republican colleagues to reach the 60-vote threshold required to pass most legislation -- though if that doesn’t pan out there are processes to pass laws with a simple 51-vote majority.
On the pandemic, Biden has warned Americans that the worst is still to come, as their number of coronavirus deaths surpassed the country’s troop fatalities in World War II.
Coronavirus cases have surged past 96 million worldwide, fueled by the emergence of new variants including one that was first detected in Britain and has now spread to more than 60 nations, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.
The United States remains the worst-hit country, with around a fifth of the two million global Covid-19 deaths, and Biden has made the fight against the pandemic his administration’s top priority.
“We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter. We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” Biden said at his inauguration, where those in attendance wore face masks and social distancing was enforced.
A Johns Hopkins University tracker on Wednesday showed that 405,400 people have died from the disease, more than the 405,399 total US combat and non-combat deaths in WWII.
Among the Biden administration’s targets is to inoculate 100 million Americans in 100 days, hoping to revive a vaccine rollout that had floundered in the last weeks of the Trump presidency.
E-commerce titan Amazon on Wednesday offered its vast logistics infrastructure to help with that effort.
Biden’s point-man for fighting the pandemic, Jeff Zients, said the US would also rejoin the WHO, reversing his predecessor’s decision.
He added that top US expert Anthony Fauci would lead a delegation to the WHO executive board meeting on Thursday.
The announcement came as the WHO confirmed that the virus variant first detected in Britain had spread to more than 60 countries, while one that emerged in South Africa has made it to 23.
The South African variant is more contagious than earlier ones, experts have warned.
Both have tempered optimism that mass vaccination will help to end the unpopular restrictions such as shutdowns that have wrecked economies around the world.
There was some good news, however, with early results from two studies on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine showing it is effective against the British variant, which is fueling a surge that has overwhelmed UK hospitals.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday extended his “warmest greetings and best wishes” to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque the Philippines looks forward to continuing its longstanding partnership with the US “for a freer and more peaceful world.”
The Philippine ambassador to the United States, meanwhile, said Filipinos will benefit from the changes in US immigration policies under Biden.
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