Brandon Thibodeaux / The New York Times

A coal-powered power plant in Huntington, Utah.

June 2, 2020

What Environmental Policies in the U.S. Could Look in the Aftermath of the 2020 Election

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Global greenhouse gas emissions are projected to decrease by 8 percent in 2020, largely due to the worldwide lockdowns implemented to combat the spread of COVID-19. While this is good news for the environment, there is no telling the rate at which global emissions will increase once industries resume usual operations.

With the upcoming presidential election in November, the elected president of the United States will have immense influence over how the nation addresses how to restart the economy and its environmental footprint.

In looking at candidates President Donald Trump’s and former Vice President Joe Biden’s past legislative actions, as well as current policies, it is possible to see a few scenarios on what U.S. environmental policy may look like in the near future.

From his inauguration in January 2017 until now, President Trump has made significant rollbacks in multiple environmental areas, reversing nearly 80 different regulations. Notable rollbacks include the gutting of the Clean Power Plan — introduced in 2015 during the Obama administration — and the repealing of methane emission limits. Trump has also repeatedly tried to slash funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, proposing a 31 percent budget cut in 2017.

The Trump administration says it views environmental quality as a balancing act between the environment and the U.S. economy.

In 2017, Trump announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement, a global accord between 197 countries to make individual contributions towards reducing global warming. His rationale: “The Paris accord will undermine [the U.S.] economy.”

“That pullback doesn’t acknowledge the fact that solving climate change is a fundamentally global problem that’s going to require a change in behavior from governments and people all around the world,” said Prof. Chris Schaffer, biomedical engineering. Schaffer previously worked as a science policy fellow for Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) during a one-year sabbatical.

In contrast to Trump, Joe Biden’s presidential platform advocates for rejoining the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Other than the Paris Agreement, Biden’s campaign website outlines extensive policies that he hopes to implement if elected. All of these policies are under a plan called the Clean Energy Revolution.

One of Biden’s key proposals under the Clean Energy Revolution involves a “100% clean energy economy and…net-zero emissions no later than 2050,” according to his campaign website. A 100 percent clean energy economy means that the US will no longer burn fossil fuels, which currently provide about 80 percent of the U.S.’s total energy.

Other policies involve re-implementing the methane pollution limits that Trump rolled back in 2019, preserving the Clean Air Act which limits greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and investing funds into clean energy technology research.

“[Biden is] trying to lead the way to a sustainable relationship between our energy needs and our climate,” Schaffer said.

However, Biden’s policies on their own will not be enough to result in change. Successful implementation of the Clean Energy Revolution will also depend on which party controls Congress.

“If he has a majority in the House and Senate, many more things are possible than if he’s not president,” Schaffer said. “Whether we start down this path soon enough that it remains technologically feasible is dependent on the outcome of this election.”