We’re coming off a year that was defined by transformative and disruptive change. Now there is plenty more on the horizon with a new presidential administration taking office here in 2021.
What should environment, health, safety, and sustainability professionals expect as America welcomes new leadership in the White House? Will the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris lead to increased federal emphasis on environmental initiatives? It seems very likely.
Since the Biden admin hasn’t even gotten started yet, we can only draw so many conclusions about the impact of this transition for EHS, in terms of shifting environmental regulations and corporate sustainability standards. But based on his campaign rhetoric and Biden’s past actions as a member of the Obama administration, we can start to inform our planning based on some key assumptions and expectations.
Refocusing on Sustainability Regulation
Last May, we wrote about how U.S. environmental regulations and water protections were being rolled back under the Trump administration. Our primary advice back then: stay the course, and remain committed to your organization’s sustainability goals. “Being environmentally conscious matters to employees, customers, and other shareholders, and can pay off big for the bottom line,” we pointed out. “Plus, by staying the course, you’ll be better prepared for future regulations, which are all but certain to push back in the other direction.”
Less than a year later, here we are, ready to see the pendulum swing back again. Climate change was featured as a major priority on the Biden/Harris platform, and a key source of criticism toward the incumbent Trump administration.
Already, Biden has shown his seriousness about addressing climate change by appointing former presidential candidate John Kerry as a special presidential envoy for climate.
“This marks the first time that the NSC will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect's commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue," said his transition team of the decision.
How else might we see this commitment reflected? What should EHS&S managers be preparing for? Here are some things we know.
How Will the Biden Admin Approach Environmental Policy?
While his ambition doesn’t reach the level of those in the progressive wing of the Democratic party advocating for a Green New Deal, Biden certainly draws a stark contrast with his predecessor in terms of combating climate change. Here are a few things you can expect to see in the short- and medium-term.
Rejoining the Paris Climate Accord
It was one of Bidens’ clearest campaign promises: re-entering this historic global agreement on day one of his presidency. That’s no surprise, given that Obama’s administration helped orchestrate the accord to begin with.
The Paris agreement is largely nonbinding and based on voluntary target-setting for the participating countries. American companies are not likely to see drastic new standards or regulations in the near future, although given the lack of progress in curbing carbon emissions over the past four years, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Biden take fairly bold action as he plays catch-up.
For now, we’ll wait to see his updated climate targets and concrete plans for achieving them.
Reversing Regulatory Rollbacks
More than 70 environmental regulations were dismantled during Trump’s term. Shortly after the election, Grist pondered how long it might take Biden to restore them. The authors noted that the new president would face an uphill battle on some fronts if Republicans maintained control of the Senate, but the results of January’s run-off elections in Georgia will help Biden push his agenda through with Democrats capturing a majority.
Former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr., who now heads up the Center for Energy Economy at Colorado State University, wrote more recently that Biden will be empowered to fight climate change in a way no U.S. president has done before, especially after the outcomes in Georgia. He envisions a bolder course than simply reversing Trump’s rollbacks.
"With Democrats gaining control of both the House and Senate, the Biden administration may ... have a better chance of overhauling laws, funding and tax incentives in ways that could fundamentally transform the U.S. approach to climate change."
Aiming for Net-Zero Emissions by 2050
This goal sits at the top of Biden’s plan for a “clean energy revolution.” It ties into the two items above, but goes far beyond: achieving this target will require collective investment from people, businesses, and government. His stated plan includes three legislative pursuits:
- Establishing an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than the end of his first term in 2025
- Making a historic investment in clean energy and climate research and innovation
- Incentivizing the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations across the economy, especially in communities most impacted by climate change.
Heightened Awareness and Scrutiny of Sustainability Practices
It is more of a byproduct than a direct impact of Biden’s election, but it will be felt nonetheless. The Biden/Harris ticket featured one of the most aggressive and urgent climate agendas in U.S. history, and support for these initiatives likely helped push them over the top. While Trump’s term in office might have obscured it, public sentiment leans heavily in favor of stronger action against climate change.
The fact that Biden recognized this issue as being deeply important to people, elevating it near the top of his winning platform, serves as further reaffirmation.
It isn’t just regulation and policy compelling businesses everywhere to play their roles in countering climate change. Customers, employees, investors, and stakeholders everywhere are keeping a close eye on companies’ sustainability efforts. We’re being challenged not just to meet the minimum standards, but to visibly go above and beyond.
The 78-year-old Biden will only be in office for so long. But the underlying environmental enthusiasm that helped propel his campaign to a decisive victory is likely to be more permanent and profound in its impact.
Back to Work
It’s important to note that environmental deregulations and rollbacks are not nefarious nor evil in motivation. They are designed to help American businesses compete and succeed. But those of us in the EHS&S field recognize that short-term financial benefits of prioritizing profit over environmental responsibility are dwarfed by the ultimate downsides.
With a climate champion taking the lead for America, the business community at large can roll up their sleeves and join the fight.
The transition to a new presidential administration will have varying impacts on different business sectors. For one specific view, take a look at our recent post examining what a Biden administration could mean for the chemical industry.
Want more news and insights like this?
Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter, The New Leaf. Our goal is to keep you updated, educated, and even a bit entertained as it relates to all things EHS and sustainability.Get e-Newsletter