Launching America’s Reinvigorated Climate Agenda: Week One

This first week of the Biden-Harris administration is off to an impressive start on efforts to tackle the climate crisis. They have launched an all-hands-on-deck approach to mobilize America and the world towards greater climate action, less pollution, more jobs, and a more just and equitable future. This is just the beginning of the massive mobilization we need, but what a first week!

This first week of the Biden-Harris administration is off to an impressive start on efforts to tackle the climate crisis. They have launched an all-hands-on-deck approach to mobilize America and the world towards greater climate action, less pollution, more jobs, and a more just and equitable future. This is just the beginning of the massive mobilization we need, but what a first week!

Here is a run-down on the key components of the international climate agenda that the Biden-Harris administration has launched in its first week in office (yes it has only been a week). More information on how to fully implement these components can be found in this set of recommendations we developed with over 60 leading experts.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement

On his first day in office, President Biden formally notified the United Nations that the United States will reenter the Paris Climate Accord. Under the terms of the agreement, this will take effect in 30 days—on February 19th. The United States will no longer be a global climate pariah as the only country in the world to withdraw from this historic agreement.

Making climate change a top foreign policy priority

The “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” establishes climate considerations as a central organizing principle of American foreign policy—the beginning of a “Climate-First Foreign Policy”. This will place climate change at the top of the agenda with every country, in every forum, and through every strategy. That will mean having the structure, personnel, tools, and prioritization that drive the climate action agenda integrated throughout the entire U.S. foreign policy apparatus. And this will help ensure that all key foreign policy decisions will consider climate change implications.

Not only did the Biden administration create a Presidential Special Envoy for Climate Change with a seat on the National Security Council, but the Executive Order states: “It is the policy of my Administration that climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.” To deliver upon this, the order directs that: “Agencies that engage in extensive international work shall develop…within 90 days of the date of this order, strategies and implementation plans for integrating climate considerations into their international work…” The order further spells out the details that need to be in those implementation plans. 

Driving stronger domestic climate actions

The order recognizes that the U.S. has to gets its own house in order by mobilizing all the tools available to drive down America’s climate pollution, accelerate equitable clean energy solutions and clean technology deployment, increase carbon sequestration through nature-based solutions, and build more just and climate resilient communities, all while creating good paying jobs and economic opportunity. As the order states: “It is the policy of my Administration to organize and deploy the full capacity of its agencies to combat the climate crisis to implement a Government-wide approach that reduces climate pollution in every sector of the economy…” It creates a “National Climate Task Force” to help deliver that whole-of-government approach and sets in motion a rapid schedule to develop sector-specific strategies, procurement policies, finance, infrastructure investments, and other measures that will undergird America’s next climate action commitments ahead of the announced April 22 climate summit (see below for further details).

Joining the Kigali Amendment to phase-down super-pollutant HFCs

President Biden directed his administration to send the Kigali Amendment phasing down super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to the Senate for its advice and consent to U.S. ratification. As the Executive Order states: “The Secretary of State shall prepare, within 60 days of the date of this order, a transmittal package seeking the Senate’s advice and consent to ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, regarding the phase-down of the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons.”

The Biden administration’s move shows how serious it is about achieving the massive climate benefits the Kigali Amendment can deliver—avoiding HFC use equivalent to as much as 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide between now and 2050 and preventing up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of climate warming over this century.

More than 120 nations have already ratified the Kigali Amendment. U.S. ratification will pave the way for similar action by China, India, and other major economies already moving forward on domestic action, but which have yet to ratify.

Helping to rally the international community for more climate ambition

The world is not acting swiftly enough to put us on a safer climate trajectory. That is why the national emissions reduction commitments in the Paris Agreement were envisioned to be “the floor, not the ceiling of ambition.” Countries are expected to strengthen their actions over time in order to put the world on a net zero emissions trajectory. Several countries moved forward with strengthened national actions in the last few years, but they weren’t enough with the U.S. out the global effort. But that has to change rapidly. Now the U.S. will be back as a force to help create the upward spiral of increasing ambition. As the Executive Order states: “the United States will exercise its leadership to promote a significant increase in global climate ambition to meet the climate challenge”.

The Biden administration announced it will host a virtual Leaders’ Climate Summit on April 22—Earth Day—that will begin a new leg in the global race to achieve net zero emissions. This will then turn into a dedicated Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate that will: “pursue green recovery efforts, initiatives to advance the clean energy transition, sectoral decarbonization, and alignment of financial flows with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, including with respect to coal financing, nature-based solutions, and solutions to other climate-related challenges.”

Announcing the timeline to develop a 2030 climate target

The directive reinforces Biden’s commitment to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and put the U.S. emissions on an “irreversible path to a net-zero economy by 2050”. The “Climate Task Force” created in the Executive Order will develop sectoral strategies to deliver near-term action and help to develop a 2030 climate target as required under the Paris Agreement. As the order states: “The United States will immediately begin the process of developing its nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement. The process will include analysis and input from relevant executive departments and agencies (agencies), as well as appropriate outreach to domestic stakeholders. The United States will aim to submit its nationally determined contribution in advance of the Leaders’ Climate Summit.”

Driving a “clean growth first” policy for overseas public investments

On his first day in office, President Biden’s executive orders already started putting US financing on the right track and revoked executive orders that conflict with America’s ability to confront the climate crisis. By revoking Trump’s executive order 13783, this effectively removes the basis for guidance issued by Treasury in 2017 that required the US to support fossil fuel development abroad through the multilateral development banks.

The climate executive order goes further by sending a signal that the U.S. will push to drive a clean growth first overseas financing policy by spurring more clean energy deployment and cleaning up the overseas financing of fossil fuels. For international financial institutions, it requires the US to: “develop a strategy for how the voice and vote of the United States can be used in international financial institutions, including the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, to promote financing programs, economic stimulus packages, and debt relief initiatives that are aligned with and support the goals of the Paris Agreement”.

And it sets in motion efforts to begin to unwind America’s own public financing of overseas fossil fuel projects. As the order states, the U.S. government shall: “identify steps through which the United States can promote ending international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy while simultaneously advancing sustainable development and a green recovery.”

This is a good start—and NRDC has several recommendations to further strengthen America’s commitment to helping countries access clean energy and ensure institutions across the government are moving in the right direction and ending public support for fossil fuel expansion overseas.

Mobilizing climate finance

To help mobilize emissions reduction action in other countries and promote strengthened adaptation and climate resilience, the world will need to mobilize a significant increase in public and private finance. Special Presidential Envoy Kerry has reiterated that: “We intend to make good on our climate finance pledge.” This should start with a meeting the existing pledge to the Green Climate Fund—with $2 billion still outstanding—and then doubling the U.S. pledge as its key partners have already committed.

The Biden administration recognizes the need to mobilize climate finance, with the order calling for key agencies to: “immediately begin to develop a climate finance plan, making strategic use of multilateral and bilateral channels and institutions, to assist developing countries in implementing ambitious emissions reduction measures, protecting critical ecosystems, building resilience against the impacts of climate change, and promoting the flow of capital toward climate-aligned investments and away from high-carbon investments.” The report is to be developed by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury, in coordination with the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and delivered to the White House within 90 days.

Supporting forest protection in the Amazon

The carbon stored in the Amazon is being lost at historic rates, thanks largely to the actions of the current Brazilian government which has dismantled enforcement agencies and scaled back policies that protect the environment and Indigenous peoples in favor of unhindered agricultural, timber, and mining exploitation. The order recognizes this and directs leading agencies to develop a plan for: “promoting the protection of the Amazon rainforest and other critical ecosystems that serve as global carbon sinks.” Concrete elements of this plan could include: working with Brazil to pursue the commitments made by both countries under the Paris Agreement; supporting trade-related forest conservation and restoration efforts with Brazil and other Amazonian countries, including through agreements with subnational actors like state governors and Indigenous groups; and working with the private sector and other countries to align trade with environmental protection, human rights, and climate policy.

Climate change as a national security threat

Climate and other adverse environmental changes represent core threats to U.S. national security and must be prioritized as such, as these recommendations outlined. The order recognizes this and states: “The Director of National Intelligence shall prepare, within 120 days of the date of this order, a National Intelligence Estimate on the national and economic security impacts of climate change.” National Intelligence Estimates (NIE’s) are the authoritative U.S. intelligence community assessment of the national security threats of a particular issue. The order also directs other agencies to integrate the security threats of climate change into their strategies and operations.

Mobilizing for action just got an injection of new (clean) energy

This first week is a clear signal that the Biden-Harris administration intends to move swiftly to fulfill its promises to deliver ambitious domestic and global climate action. They have charted a new direction for America’s climate future and set the stage for many of the actions that the U.S. will need to help deliver to put the world on a safer climate trajectory.

We have no time to waste, so let’s put this new effort into overdrive.

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