emissions from plant pipe against setting sun

President-elect Joe Biden is promising to start implementing on day one the most aggressive policies to curb emissions of any administration.

His administration is poised to get started quickly. Biden is bringing in a team of climate policymaking veterans, former Obama Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and former Secretary of State John Kerry, to run his White House climate shop.

He has also been laying the groundwork for months to set an “all of government” strategy to curb greenhouse gas emissions sharply. Environmentalists and those close to Biden’s team expect the president-elect will seek to codify his overall agenda in his first days, maybe even in his first few hours on the job.

“I’m just hoping to hear on day one, or very, very early, signals about an urgent agenda to address neglected pollution problems, including, of course, climate change,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate and clean energy program.

Biden has no shortage of ideas at his disposal, too. On the campaign trail, and even more since his election, climate advocates, clean energy companies and environmental groups have offered Biden’s team an overflow of policy blueprints, laying out in granular detail how each agency, not just the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department, can combat climate change.

In addition, climate activists will be clamoring for immediate and aggressive action from Biden, citing the urgency of addressing rising global emissions and a need to repair the environmental damage they say the Trump administration has caused.

“We need to meet this moment with the urgency it demands as we would during any national emergency,” Biden said Dec. 19, introducing his climate and energy Cabinet nominees and appointments.

Here’s what to expect from Biden on climate change in his first days in office, based on a review of his climate plans:

Executive orders

Perhaps the biggest action to watch for: Biden is promising on his first day to sign executive orders “with unprecedented reach that go well beyond” what the Obama administration set out to achieve.

Those executive orders, environmentalists say, will be critical to sending a signal to government agencies that climate change is a priority.

It’s expected Biden could seek to, through executive order, set the United States on a path to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and a carbon-free power sector by 2035. Biden has also pledged to set a goal for the U.S. to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, as well as establish targets to increase reforestation and expand renewable energy on federal lands.

Biden is also likely to task specific federal agencies with beginning work to rewrite Trump-era environmental rollbacks, set stricter emissions mandates, limit fossil fuel production, and ramp up clean energy generation.

Top of the list for the EPA, for example, would be to set requirements for oil and gas facilities to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane, said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force. Biden could also direct the EPA to rewrite carbon emissions limits for power plants that the Trump administration weakened, he said.

Biden has also pledged to direct the EPA and Transportation Department to set stricter fuel economy standards for passenger cars and to restore California’s ability to set its own tailpipe greenhouse gas limits.

In addition, any day one executive order could be the first place Biden directs the Interior Department to restrict fossil fuel development on public lands. Biden has promised to bar new federal leasing for oil and gas on federal lands and waters.

Other actions Biden has promised in his climate plan for which directives could appear in a day one executive order:

  • Directing the federal government to purchase more clean energy, electric cars, and other low-carbon technologies.
  • Ordering the Energy Department to set tighter energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings.
  • Requiring that federal permitting of infrastructure, energy, and other projects assess the effects they would have on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Directing financial agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission to require public companies to disclose the risks they face from climate change and how much greenhouse gases they emit.

International efforts

Biden has said repeatedly he will begin the process to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on his first day, after which the U.S. could be a formal member again after a 30-day waiting period.

However, he has pledged to take several other steps in his first 100 days internationally:

  • Convene a world summit with the leaders of major emitting countries to call on them to make more aggressive pledges to slash greenhouse gases.
  • “Lock in” emissions mandates consistent with global agreements to cut greenhouse gases from the shipping and aviation sectors.
  • “Embrace” a global deal to limit climate-warming coolants known as hydrofluorocarbons, which could avoid 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming if governments meet their targets.

What about Congress?

Much of what Biden is promising in his first days in office he is hoping to do through executive action alone. Nevertheless, his climate plan does include working with Congress.

Biden pledged to “demand” Congress pass legislation in the first year of his term that sets enforceable emissions targets for no later than 2025, makes “historic” investments in clean energy and climate change research, and spurs “rapid deployment” of clean energy across the country.

What pull Biden has with Congress, however, will depend on how the Georgia Senate runoff elections shake out in early January. If Republicans retain control of the Senate, Biden is likely constrained to less aggressive clean energy spending measures, along the lines of the innovation measure Congress passed this month as part of a year-end spending package funding low-carbon technologies such as carbon capture and advanced nuclear power.

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