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The first 100 days: What can Joe Biden do for the environment?

100 days into his Presidency and Joe Biden has re-joined the Paris Agreement and pledged to halve carbon emissions by 2030. The mood music coming from the Oval Office has been encouraging; is this early momentum sustainable?

Fabrizio Varriale, World Built Environment Forum
7 May 2021

After years of absence, the US can reassert its leadership credentials on climate issues

Having re-joined the Paris Agreement, Joe Biden can build trust with international partners by showing continuity with the Obama presidency. To do so, he must leverage the work and reputation of those non-sovereign bodies that progressed the US climate agenda during the Trump presidency.

The new administration can also encourage a stronger focus on climate adaptation, including showing solidarity with those countries that face structural obstacles on their own journey to decarbonisation.

“This is a really important time to show the world that the US is here to stay as a leader and a partner”, says Daniel Kreeger, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Association of Climate Change Officers. “During his address to Congress, Biden commented that one of the questions commonly heard from world leaders was: ‘How long is the US going to be back in play?’ This is a valid question and one that actually does not stem from the past four years, but goes back to the beginning of the UNCCC. Biden's climate summit is a starting point to build trust and relationships, and to address the key issue of aid going to developing countries. That aid is not just designed to help them reduce carbon emissions, but also to deal with the impacts of climate change. At the heart of the international negotiations there has been a repeated argument. One side is perceived to have caused climate change – and rightfully so. On the other side are the countries that are going to be the most impacted by it, and those that already are.”

During his address to Congress, Joe Biden commented that one of the questions commonly heard from world leaders was: ‘How long is the US going to be back in play?’ It’s a valid question.

Daniel Kreeger
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Association of Climate Change Officers

Biden’s executive order on climate-related financial risk will impact every sector of the US economy

The executive order will require US banking and insurance sectors to include climate risk in their assessment and decision-making. Joyce Coffee, Founder and President of Climate Resilience Consulting, explains how the order has started several initiatives within the administration. “The US Treasury will examine the financial risk of climate change – which is unprecedented. The Federal Reserve has created a climate committee to assess the implications of climate change risk on the US financial system, including banks, corporations and infrastructure. The Federal Finance Housing Agency has issued a request for input on integrating climate risk management for its regulated entities. These include Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae, as well as the Federal Home Loan Bank. The Security and Exchange Commission has begun work on potential regulation that would require companies to disclose exposure to climate risk.”

The new administration aims to deliver 50% carbon reduction in the built environment by 2030

The Administration has set itself a punchy target. So says Michael R. Davis, President of Bergmeyer, Chair, American Institute of Architects (AIA), who lays out a possible first stop on the roadmap to success. “The first step is building electrification: we see a future where electricity is the only source of energy for buildings. In this way, as the grid becomes renewable, buildings will emit less carbon.”

The first 100 days: What can President Joe Biden do for the environment?

One of Joe Biden’s first acts in the Oval Office was to sign an executive order reinstating America’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. How does the administration plan to carry forward this encouraging start?

Other necessary actions will include a move from new construction to sustainable renovation of existing building stock. More attention will also need to be paid to embodied carbon emissions.

Davis furthermore believes that uniform building codes remain the most effective tool available to regulators. The AIA, he says, would like to see such codes adopted by all US states. He further advocates for a system that empowers the Department of Energy to withhold federal funding and impose mandatory building codes on states failing to meet their obligations. “In terms of incentives”, he notes, “the real brass ring would be to allow commercial building portfolios to participate in a carbon trade agreement.”

Sustainability is also a social equity issue

“Decarbonisation is not understood by the average American household”, says Joyce Coffee. “They are looking for housing that promises lower bills, is safe from weather events and has good indoor air quality.” Happily, these are all social benefits associated with decarbonisation.

“When we talk about decarbonisation we must ensure that we come up with local community jobs, not just jobs for white privileged people”, she continues. “We must preserve affordable housing and ensure it gets the first cut at decarbonisation funding. So many affordable housing units are already subject to climate risk hazards like coastal flooding and wildfire.”

We must preserve affordable housing and ensure it gets the first cut at decarbonisation funding. Many affordable housing units are already subject to climate risk hazards like coastal flooding and wildfire.

Joyce Coffee
Founder and President, Climate Resilience Consulting

Daniel Kreeger picks up the thread: “There are communities in the US that have sub-standard housing because the energy bills are so high. The cost of cooling and heating can be two or three times more expensive than the unit rent. That creates massive inequality.”

Public and private organisations should place sustainability experts in leadership roles

Sustainability professionals are the change agents that are needed to deliver decarbonisation. In addition to their technical competencies, they need to be equipped with leadership, management, and problem-solving skills.

Daniel Kreeger argues that they also need to have higher positions within their organisations: “Most publicly-traded companies have somebody who is a sustainability officer or something akin to that, but they are not actually in the right position within the company. The public sector is not much different. As a field we need to mature and convince leaders that we belong in the top level of an organisation. We’re not only looking at how to reduce organisations’ carbon footprints. We’re looking at how climate change affects organisational operations, marketplaces and overall missions – as well as what we can do in response. We need the field of HR executives to understand that climate change is not a communication or disclosure issue, it is an existential strategic risk management issue.”