Weighing The Administrations of Obama, Trump & Biden: The CleanTechnica Climate Policy Report Card
As we approach the momentous US federal election of 2020, American voters must weigh long-range concerns against short-term issues, and domestic matters against foreign policy. Concerns for Americans today and tomorrow, and concerns for other global citizens in the coming years, are being weighed in households and over coffee around the country, and indeed the world. Climate change remains the most important issue of the 21st century, even as COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter take precedence in this tumultuous year.
To that end, let’s cast our eyes back to the eight years of the Obama/Biden administration, their actions on climate change, and rate them with the fullness of hindsight. Let’s also look at which of the good policies have survived the intervening years of a climate change–denying presidential administration. Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate bodes well for climate action in their likely administration in 2021 and onward, as his plan has improved and Harris’ plan was excellent. We will return to those as well for this comparison.
As with all assessments, we must have a framework for consideration. Global warming has several large areas of causation. Electrical generation, transportation, land use, and industry all have greenhouse gas emissions. The US military, which is larger than the next seven largest military forces in the world combined, is estimated to be one of the single largest greenhouse gas sources in the world and has not been required to quantify its emissions, but has been pointing out the significant global security risks of climate change for over a decade.
While dealing with the causes is critical, dealing with adaptation to the impacts is now important as well due to our delays in addressing this problem, which has been clear since the 1970s. While accelerating drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere is of lower priority than stopping emitting greenhouse gases, any plan should address aspects of drawdown as well. These aspects of any plan need to be assessed to see if they are addressed at all and if the approaches are reasonable. And, of course, there is the matter of the global ties that bind the world together, treaties and trade agreements and their implications for climate change.
The scorecard is much better for Obama/Biden and Biden/Harris than for Trump/Pence, which is unsurprising given President Trump’s rhetoric on the subject. The Obama/Biden administration could have done much more, and while a Biden/Harris administration would be much stronger on climate change action than the Trump administration, it too has more work to do to get to a truly effective climate action plan.
For each of these categories, let’s first assess Obama and Biden’s legacy, then assess Trump and Pence’s actions in that context, and finally assess Biden and Harris’s 2020 pledges on the matter.
Treaties and Agreements
Obama and Biden were integral leaders in two global treaties on climate action, as well as another international agreement of note.
The first was the Paris Accord of 2015, something long in the making. Obama and Biden had thrown US weight behind a 2 degree Celsius limit as a target, and supported the aspirational 1.5 degrees limit as well. The Paris Accord was imperfect, as every climate treaty has been. But imperfect action now is better than perfect action later, and the basis for improvement. The weak targets in the Accord were at least targets, and an agreement for measurement. And the Accord included military emissions, something excluded from the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty also entered into by a Democratic President and abandoned by a Republican one.
The Accord included assistance for developing countries to avoid the historical mistakes of the major industrialized countries in creating fossil-fuel-intensive economies. The UN’s Green Climate Fund was to be funded by developed nations to the tune of $100 billion annually. There are 60–80 countries in the world considered to be in that category, so the USA was agreeing to extend its previous small contributions to the Green Climate Fund by a reasonable amount, along with other wealthier jurisdictions in the world such as China and the EU. Given the global GDP of $81 trillion and the predominance of developed countries in GDP rankings, $100 billion is about 0.1% of their GDP, so this was not an onerous burden on the USA.
This global treaty was eventually ratified by 198 countries in the world. The only holdouts are Turkey and Iran. And now the United States is joining the short list of intransigents as Trump has removed the USA from the Paris Accord, something which takes effect in 2021.
The second major agreement was the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. CFC refrigerants damage the ozone layer. The agreement led by Reagan and Mulroney in North America called for replacing them with less harmful HFCs. Unfortunately, both CFCs and HFCs have very strong global warming potentials, with HFCs having potentials up to 14,000 times that of carbon dioxide. CFCs had higher average global warming potential than HFCs, so some climate change good came of the Montreal Protocol, but not enough. The Kigali Amendment focuses on displacing high–global warming potential refrigerants with low–global warming potential ones, including HFOs and different HFCs. Fixing refrigerants is a very cost effective way to deliver climate value, which is why it’s #1 on the Project Drawdown list of actions ranked by cost vs benefit. Once again, Obama and Biden were instrumental in this 2016 agreement, now ratified by 100 countries worldwide.
The exception again is the United States. Ratification was to have occurred in 2017, but it’s still being held up by Trump and Republicans. The USA remains one of the major holdouts on ratification.
Biden and Harris’ campaign platform on climate change includes pledges to re-enter the Paris Accord and fulfill America’s obligations in that treaty, and to ratify the Kigali Amendment and start taking action on its provisions.
There are also the G7 and G20 agreements to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, reached in the late 2000’s and agreed to by Biden and Obama. Those subsidies, as CleanTechnica has reported in the past, have numbers ranging from $4.6 to $27.4 to $649 billion annually, depending on source. The USA made exactly no progress under their administration in reducing subsidies, so this is indeed a black mark of a failed commitment on Obama and Biden’s record.
On a more positive note was the Obama administration’s scorecard on suppliers’ greenhouse gas emissions. This signaled to major corporate suppliers that they would be assessed on this measure.
Biden and Harris have pledged in their platform to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, but this is a wicked problem. Canada, by comparison, has done much better at reducing subsidies over the same period, but has foundered on the shoals of a myriad of embedded programs, regulations, and the revolving door between industry and the governmental organizations providing the subsidies. Canada’s tax code is also more amenable to change than the USA’s, and a large percentage of US subsidies are embedded in the granite of the permanent tax code.
Obama / Biden: B+
Trump / Pence: F
Biden / Harris: B+
Obama and Biden’s legacy is mixed in this regard. On the positive side, under their Administration the Production Tax Credit for wind energy and the Investment Tax Credit for solar energy were both extended more than once. Further, as part of their efforts to recover from the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, their American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) included over $90 billion in investment for renewable energy, and unlocked a further $150 billion in private and non-federal capital. During their Administration, wind energy rose from 25 GW of capacity to 75 GW, a 300% increase, and solar increased by 2500% from 1.2 GW to 31 GW. Their investments in these key industries included research and development funding which assisted in causing the massive drop in costs for wind and solar, making it clear that they are workhorses of the future grid.
On the downside, their all-of-the-above energy policy was ill-founded. It leaned heavily on domestic production of oil and gas, in large part because it was an economic sector that in the late 2000s was providing jobs and economic recovery to a United States hammered by recession. Lobbyists made very persuasive arguments to all of the key influencers and decision makers about jobs. As a result, the United States’ movement on green house gas emissions is being outstripped by countries globally. However, they also brought in the Clean Power Plan, which was targeted at reducing CO2 emissions from electrical generation plants.
Trump’s Administration, on the other hand, is against renewables, especially wind energy. It’s also for increasing coal consumption, and the Department of Energy under Perry crafted a report calling for more coal generation, a report which excluded input from renewables representatives. However, the PTC and ITC are being extended despite Trump’s rhetoric, while coal continues to fall off of the grid. Trump’s Administration has rescinded the Clean Power Plan. The Administration also weakened regulations and enforcement around mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal plants.
Another not-so-great-in-retrospect move on the Obama Administration’s part was leaning into hydrogen as an energy storage and transportation medium. As has been published at length, physics made the Rifkin’s Hydrogen Economy a pipe dream in 2002 when it was published. Obama’s Energy Secretary became bullish on hydrogen in 2012, and remains bullish on it, but there’s no evidence except gas industry lobbying that it is warranted. Green hydrogen from renewables and water will be useful in industrial applications such as low-carbon steel, and may be useful in long-distance flight and oceanic shipping, but it’s not going to be a mainstay of the transportation or storage industries.
Biden and Harris’ aren’t depending on an all-of-the-above energy strategy, but instead are strongly focused on renewables. Their current plan is explicitly to create a carbon-free electrical generation system by 2035, one which leaves no particular room for gas generation, never mind coal. Further, Biden has learned from other plans such as Sanders’, and is pledging a national HVDC grid along federal right-of-ways including highways and rail lines. Their plan would also enhance the successful ITC and PTC programs.
On the down side, they are still going to spend R&D dollars on small modular reactors, carbon capture use and storage and hydrogen, all unproductive uses of federal money when their plan agrees that they have until 2030 to make major strides. With luck, little will be spent on them.
Obama / Biden: C
Trump / Pence: F
Biden / Harris: B+
The primary point in this category is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules in the USA. Obama and Biden had reached an agreement with the US auto industry in 2009 to extend the CAFE regulations — an industry that they had massive leverage with as they required either complete bailouts or multi-billion-dollar loans with favorable terms to survive during the Great Recession. It was projected to have emissions savings equivalent to taking 177 million cars off of the road. This was a major domestic climate win.
The Trump administration has rolled back the Obama Administration improvements to CAFE, and attempted to force California to reduce its standards to US levels. Analysis makes it clear that the rollback won’t save lives, will cost consumers more money, and won’t help with climate change. It will increase domestic gasoline and diesel consumption. Trump’s administration also blocked extension of the George W. Bush era tax credits for new electric vehicles.
Other Obama-era efforts of note are the $465 million loan to Tesla, now fully paid off, to enable building the fully electric Model S, and administration support for ICAO climate change efforts around civil aviation.
To its credit, the Trump administration has announced alignment to ICAO regulations on emissions from flights, after lobbying by major aerospace firms for alignment with international regulation to avoid complexity.
Biden and Harris’ campaign commitments go further than the Obama-era CAFE improvements, targeting zero emissions for new light vehicles and stronger emissions standards for heavy vehicles. As part of the initiative to electrify light vehicles, they plan to build 500,000 charging stations across America and to restore the full electric vehicle tax credit. They call for higher-speed — not high-speed — freight and transit rail, and electrification of rail, both of which are pragmatic and sensible goals given the USA. At present, Biden and Harris are silent on air transportation and water-borne freight, but given other efforts, these are likely to be addressed when in office.
Obama / Biden: C+
Trump / Pence: D
Biden / Harris: A-
Obama’s land use changes are mostly positive, but also mostly not relevant to climate action. He put large areas of the United States waters and land under federal protection, and banned Arctic oil exploration. But during Obama’s tenure, federal land grants for oil and gas continued, although in substantially reduced numbers compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Obama’s EPA did bring in methane-emissions caps on oil and gas lands, something of increasing need as their extent is better understood. Methane, of course, is a much higher global warming potential gas than carbon dioxide. Obama’s 2015 efforts around climate-smart agriculture were light and didn’t address driving transformative agricultural practices into agribusiness via regulation and incentives.
Trump’s EPA, by comparison, has been focused on rolling back Obama-era land use decisions. For those with access, the New York Times is maintaining a list of 100 environmental protection rollbacks and their status. Trump’s administration is permitting oil exploration in the Arctic, although it’s unlikely that many companies will take advantage of it. It’s rolled back methane-emissions standards. It’s permitting mining, oil and gas extraction, and grazing on federally protected lands. Trump’s policies related to agriculture have mostly been damaging to American farmers and environmentally harmful. They include the trade war with China, which required a bailout for farmers twice the size the 2009 auto industry bailout, a grab bag of efforts related to ethanol, which left farmers with lower revenues while doing nothing for climate change, and a rollback of Obama-era water safety regulations that farmers disliked.
Biden and Harris’ current plan is very light on land use goals. Other Democratic candidates’ plans had included explicit targets of both reducing oil and gas leases in federal lands and waters, and a strong focus on using federal lands for wind and solar generation instead. Harris’ climate plan from her candidacy included ending leases for oil and gas. However, beyond research and development for agricultural carbon reductions, a few words about planting an unspecified number of trees, and a jobs program for a Civilian Climate Corps to work on conservancy and adaptation issues on federal lands, they are not nearly as strong in this category. One would assume that Biden and Harris would revert Trump’s rollbacks again as a key action.
Obama / Biden: B-
Trump / Pence: F
Biden / Harris: B
While electrical generation and transportation have had major movement in terms of economically viable solutions, and are the largest sources of greenhouse gases, industry is also a major emitter and there has been less success in shifting to low-emission processes.
Obama and Biden attempted to bring in a cap and trade program, with Obama preferring market mechanisms over regulation. Climate action and health care reform were his two top legislative priorities in 2008 upon his election, and for two years, Democratic politicians had the White House and both Houses of Congress. However, only the Affordable Health Care act made it through Congress. As Theda Skopol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, pointed out in 2013, by 2009, Republicans had pivoted to be against environmental actions that they had previously supported, catching those working on climate reform unprepared for the shift. As a result, cap and trade died on the floor, and its big broom meant less US movement in industry.
The Kigali Amendment was a signature global effort that would have impacted all refrigerants in industry and buildings, but that too has been blocked by Republicans. The Appliance and Equipment Standards Program was implemented, increasing efficiency in numerous industrial and building applications, saving emissions from still carbon-intensive electricity.
The oil and gas industry’s direct emissions were not addressed by Obama and Biden. Refineries are massive industrial complexes which consume copious fossil fuels to power their processes, and this was left unaddressed. On cement, which produces 8–11% of the world’s CO2 based on the source, Obama and Biden’s only solution was carbon capture, a technology which has a 50 year history of failing to succeed commercially.
The Trump administration has taken steps around industry, of course. With so few steps taken specific to climate change, most of the deregulation has occurred around toxic chemical emissions and management.
Biden and Harris’ current plan is light on specific climate action for industry as well. The committed Kigali Amendment and Paris Accord ratifications will have flow-down impacts of course. There are research dollars for low-carbon concrete and further money to be thrown at carbon capture use and storage, but nothing substantive. Unfortunately, while Harris’ plan included a price on carbon, it’s unlikely to be on the table for the first term.
Obama / Biden: B+
Trump / Pence: F
Biden / Harris: B+
By external measures, the US military is the single largest organizational emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. 80% of the energy consumed by all US federal agencies is consumed by the Department of Defense (DoD). Its ships, trucks, planes, and tanks consume massive amounts of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel in peacetime and more in times of conflict. And much of that is expended in the Middle East, where America has maintained a strong military presence and engaged in wars and conflicts that were both sanctioned and unsanctioned by the United Nations and the international community, mostly in aid of the need for Middle East oil and gas to continue to flow to the United States.
The Obama/Biden administration included the military in reporting emissions within the Paris Accord, unlike the Kyoto Protocol which excluded national military emissions. That administration also established a plan in 2015 requiring federal agencies, including the military, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2025.
The combination of reporting on emissions and requiring reductions was a strong effort to get this major source in check, one which will require decades. Obama’s military extension of force globally, a key driver of emissions, also changed radically. While the country remained embroiled in Afghanistan and Iraq, intractable problems created before his administration, he reduced the number of US soldiers in active war zones from 150,000 to 14,000, relying more on specialist commando teams, drone warfare, and cyber weapons. Still, American military forces remained deployed globally, maneuvering near Russia to counter an expansionist Putin, and with troops and warships in the western Pacific to counter an increasingly strong China.
Without military emissions reporting within the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accord, only approximations of emissions can be made. The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University show a 17% reduction in energy consumption by the US military globally during the Obama years, so his efforts combined with ongoing efficiency efforts by the DoD bore fruit.
Trump rescinded the Obama-era greenhouse gas and efficiencies targets, but the Department of Defense has continued to seek efficiencies regardless of the Trump administration’s position. Trump has continued to reduce troops in war zones, but as there are so few compared to the beginning of the Obama Administration, the related emissions reduction will be lower. The Watson Institute material shows a slight reduction in energy consumption in 2018 after a flat 2017, but this is likely due to continued Department of Defense efforts. Trump removing the USA from the Paris Accord means that military emissions continue to not be reported.
One detailed example to elucidate the types of decisions being made is a program that was introduced in the Clinton years and enacted during the Obama-Biden era on military bases, called the Residential Energy Conservation Program (RECP). It was an evolution from previous programs that had dealt with how military families in base residences paid for utilities. Buildings and residences are major consumers of energy and hence causes of greenhouse gas emissions, and US military personnel represent a lot of residences. A baseline study (note, this is an old article, and the link from EDF is broken) found that military households with taxpayer subsidized electricity used 20% more electricity of similar size households where the energy bill was the responsibility of the resident. The REC program charged a bit more to families that consumed a lot, then gave that money as a refund to military families that used less electricity. This lead to substantial efficiency improvements to military housing stock and a dramatic reduction of energy use, along with awareness of the issue. Residents who used a lot more energy predictably didn’t like the program, and some started spreading information about how unfair the system was. They even started a Change.org petition over it, asking, “Don’t our veterans deserve a hot shower when they come home from the field? Don’t our military spouses deserve to bathe their children without worrying how much electricity they’re consuming?” The RECP program has been suspended over the last four years, making taxpayers liable to pay for excessive energy use and the fossil fuels needed to create that electricity.
The current Biden/Harris climate action plan is silent on the military. Neither addressed military emissions directly during the primaries, unlike Sanders, who quantified the costs associated with the US military in the global fossil fuel supply chain and targeted reductions. Presumably, the Biden/Harris administration would reinstate the Obama-era targets or variations of those, but it’s unstated. The only clear bright spot is the intent to return to the Paris Accord, which will draw attention to military emissions.
Obama / Biden: A
Trump / Pence: F
Biden / Harris: D
This material will be updated as changes occur. Should Biden and Harris succeed Trump as President and Vice President in 2021, the report card will shift from pledges to actions. If there are substantive omissions or errors, please let us know via comments or our editorial email.