EDF experts weigh in: President Biden’s executive actions on climate

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President Joe Biden is taking executive action to combat climate change while creating high quality American jobs, building on the steps he took on his first day in office. EDF is providing this analysis of some of the actions the President took on January 20th and is taking today.

Wednesday, Jan. 27 Climate actions

Omnibus Domestic and International Climate Executive Order

If there was any doubt before today that the Biden administration was making climate change central to policy across the administration, today’s major action erased it. The Omnibus Executive Order clearly implements a “whole of government” approach to climate change:

  • A new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy under the leadership of National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy.
  • A new post of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change, filled by John Kerry, charged with the development of U.S. international climate policy.
  • A National Climate Task Force, led by McCarthy and Kerry, that will coordinate climate policy across the administration and ensure that climate is integrated into every aspect of domestic and international policy.

The administration clearly intends today’s major announcements to be the start of a historic push to reduce climate pollution. That vision should include 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 together with 100% clean cars by 2035 and all new zero emitting trucks and buses no later than 2040. Eliminating the extensive climate and air pollution from these sources together with the administration’s commitment to slash methane from new and existing oil and gas extraction activities are among the single most important steps we can take immediately as a nation to address the climate crisis.

These actions will save tens of thousands of lives each year as smokestacks, tailpipes and oil and gas discharge deadly particle pollution, smog-forming contaminants and air toxics. For far too long, too many communities and neighborhoods have been disproportionately afflicted by the heavy and unjust burden of industrial air pollution.

The race to deploy clean solutions will also create new American jobs, strengthening American manufacturing now and for years to come, and create economic opportunities in urban and rural communities alike to build 21st Century infrastructure. As shown by two new EDF reports, eliminating pollution from new cars by 2035 will bring extensive health, climate, cost saving benefits of eliminating pollution from new cars by 2035.

Climate Leaders’ Summit

The White House also confirmed that it will host the online Climate Leaders’ Summit on April 22, Earth Day. The summit, which fulfills one of President Biden’s campaign pledges, will bring together world leaders to discuss pressing climate issues ahead of COP 26. It will mark the next key step in the U.S. government’s engagement on international climate.

Pausing federal oil and gas leasing

After years of giving away oil and gas leases at fire-sale prices, tapping the brakes is a sensible and necessary step. It will give the administration time to determine whether oil and gas leasing on public lands can be reconciled with the need to rapidly transition to a clean energy economy. It will allow permanent protections to be put in place for the Arctic, parks and monuments, lands that are culturally significant to Native American communities and coastal areas that have long been off-limits. Critically, it will also allow time for EPA and BLM to reinstate and strengthen methane and waste prevention rules rescinded by the previous administration. With industry already sitting on more than 13 million acres of idle oil and gas leases, claims that a pause on leasing will cause economic harm stretch all credulity.

30×30 Executive Order

President Biden is quickly making reality of his campaign promise to increase protections for U.S. lands and waters. Achieving robust protections for 30% of these areas by 2030 will not be easy. However, by allowing for a process that invites those who draw their livings from these resources and communities – especially low-income, rural and Tribal communities, as well as communities of color – the administration can better guarantee we not only meet this goal, but that we can enjoy the many benefits that protected areas bring to lives. Enhancing biodiversity, building resilience, and contributing to human well-being while minimizing any economic impacts are all important goals of this effort.

When done well, protected areas provide durable and equitable benefits to people, biodiversity, and habitats. Their design can incorporate both climate change mitigation and adaptation, protecting carbon reserves, hotspots for endangered wildlife, and habitats that can serve as refuge for impacted species. Meeting this laudable and ambitious target will require deep cooperation with fisherfolk and other ocean users, as well as farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners to contribute to conservation management on private lands.


Ensuring that strong science underpins the work of the federal government is critical to meeting the many serious challenges we face – including Climate Change. Reiterating the centrality of science to the work of government and the need to protect the integrity of the processes used to bring science to bear is fundamental to meeting the vision laid out by the President. To that end, re-establishing PCAST is an important step, as marshalling the knowledge of some of the leading scientists in the country on a diversity of key challenges will increase our likelihood of success. Our country’s role as an economic leader is due in large part to innovations in science and engineering that we have used to improve the human condition, and reestablishing science as central to our government’s decision-making will help us maintain that position in the world.

Environmental justice

President Biden is also extending the ‘whole of government’ approach to tackling the critical issue of environmental justice by establishing White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and Advisory Council to focus on both current and historical environmental injustices, strengthen pollution monitoring and enforcement, expand and/or create environmental justice offices in EPA, DOJ and HHS. The Biden administration today also asked these new entities to recommend ways to strengthen the landmark Executive Order from President Clinton on Environmental Justice, announced the development of new tools to identify the most burdened communities in an efforts to identify where to deploy resources for the most impact, and set a goal of delivering 40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities.

For too long, our government not only accepted, but contributed to the disproportionate environmental and health harms faced by communities of color and low-income communities. These frontline communities, who as a result of discrimination in housing, zoning and economic opportunity are more likely to live near power plants, incinerators, ports, factories and other hubs of toxic pollution, have been especially put at risk as pollution rules were ignored or unenforced under the Trump administration.

Fortunately the Biden administration has the chance to not only repair this damage, but to to prevent future injustices and build back better.

Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities

President Biden is starting a new interagency task force focused on revitalizing energy communities, to be co-chaired by the National Climate Advisor and Director of the National Economic Council. The working group will play a key role in ensuring fairness for fossil fuel workers and communities in the transition to a clean economy, by directing federal agencies to coordinate investments and other efforts to assist our country’s many coal, oil and natural gas, and power plant communities, spanning from the Navajo Nation to Appalachia. Its focus on cleaning up pollution from former mine sites and remediating other environmental damages will help build healthier communities, combat legacy pollution and environmental injustice, and restore sites to economic use where jobs and economic prosperity have been lost — a key and necessary action highlighted in recent policy research by EDF and Resources for the Future.

Day One actions

Rejoining the Paris Agreement

Rejoining the Paris Agreement is a key step toward restoring American leadership on climate action; by making it a Day One priority, President Biden sent an important and unmistakable signal to the world. The Biden administration must now begin developing a new target under the Paris Agreement, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC), which must be announced in advance of the climate conference known as COP 26 to be held in Glasgow in November. The previous NDC, committing to cutting emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, became moot when the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of Paris. In fact, the climate-adverse policies of the Trump administration have put that 2025 target likely out of reach; emissions were only 12% below 2005 levels in 2018.

EDF and other major environmental organizations are calling for an NDC in the range of a 50% cut below 2005 levels by 2030, which would be consistent with or even slightly ahead of what’s needed to meet President Biden’s pledge of net-zero emissions across the U.S. economy by 2050 at the latest.

Social costs of greenhouse gases

President Biden restarted the “Interagency Working Group on the Social Costs of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” as part of the Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis. This work is absolutely fundamental to transparency and good government based on sound science and economics.

The social cost of carbon (SCC), and its cousins, the social cost of methane (SCM) and the social cost of nitrous oxide (SCN), are important tools used in regulatory impact analysis to quantify the social benefits from reducing these greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the SCC would be used in understanding the benefits of regulations that reduce CO2 emissions from cars and trucks or from power plants, or regulations that reduce methane from oil and gas production and distribution.

The Obama administration was the first to establish a standardized value for the SCC across all federal agencies, based on the best available models and climate science. The most recent update of the Obama SCC, in 2016, would translate into an SCC of $52 per ton of CO2 in 2020 in current dollars. Total CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the U.S. are on the order of five billion tons a year, so that would be roughly $250 billion dollars in damages per year just from burning fossil fuels.

Last week’s Executive Order directed the Working Group to publish interim values for the SCC, SCM, and SCN in 30 days, likely building on the work of the Obama administration. Once that interim value is in place, the Working Group will need to develop new values for the social cost of greenhouse gases by January 2022 that incorporate recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences and the latest advances in scientific and economic understanding. Over the past four years, research done at Chicago and Berkeley and at Resources for the Future has shown that the damages are likely much higher than reflected in the models used to produce the Obama SCC. The economics discipline also now has a better understanding of the proper way to apply a discount rate to damages far off in the future (like those from climate change), which will likely end up putting a higher weight on those future damages than the central SCC estimate under the Obama administration. The upshot is that when the Biden administration takes a fresh look at the latest science and economics, it will likely come up with a value for the SCC that is much higher than the Obama SCC.

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