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Green vs. Red: is Biden’s victory really a green victory?

11 Nov 2020 - 14:27

The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the new presidential team of the United States holds promises for a more sustainable global and American development. An improvement of the environmental policies compared to the Donald Trump era is certain, but the real impact remains to be seen. The announced policies and further shift towards sustainability that are required, might be difficult to realise in the current controversial political context.

The US presidential elections of 2020 were not only a race between ‘blue’ (Democrat) and ‘red’ (Republican) votes, but certainly also a battle between ‘green’ and ‘red’. Clearly, Trump’s passion in the past four years was not for the environment. According to The New York Times, under his administration, over 70 important environmental rules and regulations were officially reversed, with the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as the best-known example.

From a European sustainability perspective, all these announced measures seem very familiar and positive

Against those standards, the Biden-Harris team could only stand out as deeply green. Indeed, in Biden’s ‘plan for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice’, the president-elect and his running mate tick many of the boxes that any European ‘greenie’ could dream of.1 They not only promise to become a contracting party of the Paris Agreement again, but also aim to organise a new summit to ramp up countries’ domestic climate targets.

Furthermore, they promise a ‘Green New Deal’, setting aside huge sums for technological innovation in the field of clean energy, stimulating green public procurement, striving to end fossil fuel subsidies and pursuing to empower local, coloured and low-income communities – amongst other measures. From a European sustainability perspective, all these announced measures seem very familiar and positive.

Some more innovative plans of the Biden-Harris team also stand out. Their emphasis on railroad development and a ‘second great railroad revolution’ – which aims to develop high-speed train networks on the East and West coasts – is a clear shift away from business as usual in a country that was built to facilitate private car transport.

Other plans of the new administration might be treated with more scepticism by some European environmental observers

And even more revolutionary is an idea that was left to Harris to launch: “The first-ever global negotiation of the cooperative managed decline of fossil fuel production”.2 Such negotiations, aiming to arrive at an ordered departure from global fossil fuel production, might be a crucial supply-side addition to the Paris Agreement that has not yet been advocated by any non-American government before.

Other plans of the new administration might be treated with more scepticism by some European environmental observers. These include, for instance, the announced development of new, small-scale modular nuclear reactors and the stimulation of a large-scale agricultural biofuels industry, both of which are very controversial in Europe.

Next to this, it is important to note what was not said in the plans of Biden and Harris. In particular, no clear statement was made on the future of American shale gas, which could nevertheless be one of the most likely ways in which the fossil fuel industry in the US might grow and could impede a global decline of fossil fuel.

Neither was any reference made to questioning an ever-growing consumption of goods and services and putting that in the context of the international debate on ‘wider’ or ‘different’ welfare development.

Discussing the latter issues might be a step too far in the current controversial American political context. However, even the policies that were announced might become difficult to realise if the Republicans would get a majority in the Senate this January. A very close watch on what sustainable dreams eventually will be realised in the US in the coming years will therefore remain necessary. The race is not over yet.


Stephan Slingerland
Senior Visiting Fellow bij het Clingendael Instituut