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  • Writer's pictureEthan Olson

What a Joe Biden Presidency Could Mean for International Climate Change Policy

This article provides a quick dive into American involvement in international climate policy. It is a reminder of sorts that there indeed was a time, not too long ago, when the United States exerted considerable influence in promoting global diplomacy for climate change. With a Biden presidency looming ahead within the realm of strong possibility, the USA could return to the table. But what exactly would it be returning to? Here’s a primer on international climate policy, and its (hopeful) American continuation.

On November 3rd, millions of Americans will cast their ballots for the presidency of the United States. Donald Trump and Joe Biden promise vastly different things for the country. Their leadership styles and personal beliefs are largely antithetical to one another, and their records are equally polarizing. But the policy area in which the two candidates’ positions differ most markedly is that of climate change. Simply put, Biden has a plan. Trump does not.

Over the past few months, there has been a large amount of discussion surrounding Biden’s massive $2 trillion climate change initiative, and for good reason. THE BIDEN PLAN FOR A CLEAN ENERGY REVOLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE includes several bold objectives, including reaching net zero emissions by 2050, installing 500,000 public electric vehicle chargers by 2030, and creating 10 million middle-class jobs. It openly embraces the core tenets of the Green New Deal, seeking an ambitious overhaul of our energy systems and emphasizing the interrelationships between the economy, the environment, politics, and social justice.

This is all great news for climate activists, if Joe Biden unseats the current president.

Far less attention however, has been paid to what a Biden presidency may mean for international climate change policy and cooperation. Biden’s promise to rejoin the Paris Agreement is well-known, but rejoining the agreement itself does little to mitigate global warming without subsequent political action. This is because although the USA is the world’s second largest emitter, it still only accounts for roughly 15% of global emissions.

To understand the potential role a Biden administration may play in international climate policy, we must first understand two things: the nature of the climate change problem, and the history of global mitigation efforts.

Climate change is a Tragedy of The Commons scenario - a dilemma that arises when over-consumption of a common resource by individuals acting in their own self interest negatively affects the public good as a whole. Economic textbooks commonly use the example of a lake to describe this phenomena: when fishermen catch as many fish as they want in an effort to increase their profits, a depletion of the fish population occurs. This in turn negatively affects all the fishermen who will see decreases in their daily catch unless measures are taken to limit consumption and allow the fish to reproduce. For climate change, the commons is not a lake, but our global atmosphere.

Individuals benefit from the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) when they use cars to drive places, or when they eat a delicious hamburger that comes from a methane-producing cow. Corporations benefit when they invest in emission-intensive capital and produce more marketable goods, or when they themselves sell the fossil fuels. Governments have spent the past century benefiting by using the power of oil, coal, and natural gas to increase their gross domestic products, create jobs, and provide reliable sources of energy. The thing we risk when we do these things - as individuals, corporations, and governments - is the stability of our global climate.

To fix a Tragedy of The Commons, individuals must come to some sort of consensus and establish a rule-structure to limit their degradation of the common resource. For climate change, this truly began with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which created emission caps for countries based on their 1990 levels. The United States failed to ratify the agreement, stating that it was unreasonable to commit to limits on emissions when developing countries were not subject to the same standard.

It took 18 years for the next major international climate regime to come into play. The Paris Agreement (signed in 2015) witnessed the participation of nearly every country in the world, a feat that was largely made possible by American influence under the Obama administration. The commitment of developing countries was not the only element that distinguished Paris from the Kyoto Protocol. Whereas Kyoto’s structure was top-down, with limits on GHG emissions assigned to each country serving as the primary building block of the arrangement, Paris is bottom-up, with countries submitting their own Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that outline how they will mitigate climate change through their own measures and unique to their own circumstances. A key facet of the Paris Agreement is that new NDCs are submitted every five years, with the idea being that each round of targets and promises will be more bold than the previous set of pledges. While this structure has its advantages, it also possesses flaws. Specifically, when countries are free to choose whatever commitments they want, without pressure, many countries will only offer up meager mitigation proposals. For an agreement like Paris to work, other countries - particularly the most powerful and influential ones - must use their leverage to influence foreign governments into making bolder pledges.

The United States is one of those powerful and influential countries. But for the past four years, American leadership has been absent from the table. Joe Biden’s potential election translates into a chance for the USA to resume its important role in the international climate scene. Not only by rejoining Paris - which Biden’s plan rightfully claims “is not enough” - but through a host of other measures that leverage the country’s economic, political, and soft power.

Here is what we can expect from Biden and his administration according to the goals outlined in his climate plan. They can be separated into four main categories.

1. Climate Leadership & Diplomacy

Joe Biden is no stranger to executive leadership on climate change, having served as Vice President to Barack Obama for eight years. However, Joe Biden’s current plans for ramping up global ambitions is far more comprehensive than those of the previous administration in which he served - a reflection of the growing concern of voters, a growing shout from progressives to tackle the issue, and the growing danger of climate change itself.

Rejoining Paris signifies cooperation with the international community. Promising to host a climate change summit within the first one-hundred days in office represents a desire for leadership. The Biden plan asserts that the purpose of such a conference will be to push other countries towards stronger NDCs by utilizing the promise that the United States is entering into a new era where it does the same. For the past four years, countries such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Australia have felt relatively little pressure from other nations to ramp up their commitments. A call from the world’s largest economy may have the power to change that. In fact, one of the policies Biden’s plan mentions is directed “naming and shaming” - a process that will be done via the creation of a Global Climate Change Report that assesses whether or not countries are on track to fulfill their NDCs.

Biden is also planning on mitigating climate change through the creation of new international agreements to erase fossil fuel subsidies worldwide, end Arctic drilling, and “reduce emissions in global shipping and aviation” (which alone is responsible for over 5% of the world’s GHG emissions). Lastly, the administration promises to work with its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere by strengthening energy grids and making them more reliant on renewable sources, assisting with adaptation measures in the vulnerable Tropical regions of Central America and the Caribbean, and developing standards and frameworks to curb emissions in polluting industries.

2. Trade

The United States can lead by good example, but that does not necessarily equate to countries diligently following in stride. Fortunately, Biden’s plan involves several notes on trade that could help push countries to reconsider their lackluster climate ambitions.

For years, economists have discussed ideas for carbon tariffs, or taxes on imports that essentially fine their carbon footprint. Renowned climate change economist William Nordhaus won a Nobel Prize largely thanks to his work on the subject, which pinned such policies as having massive potential in driving down global emissions. But for Joe Biden, carbon tariffs likely have two purposes. Not only to reduce GHGs from other countries, but to protect American producers and consumers that will likely see prices increase because of regulations from a Green New Deal style economic overhaul.

The Biden plan states that “Biden will also condition future trade agreements on partners’ commitments to meet their enhanced Paris climate targets.” The stringency of this policy is not clear. Barring countries from American exports and markets can serve as a high-pressure tactic for influencing nations’ climate policies. But in the midst of an economic recession, the administration may be hesitant to ignite trade escalations.

Finally, the climate plan seeks to decrease the dependency of U.S international financial institutions on carbon-intensive investments. Developers will no longer be able to use American agencies as a workaround to fund projects that do meet the higher environmental standards of the World Bank. Taking on dirty investment in other countries brings the discussion to Biden’s next big focus.

3. China

Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced something bold: a pledge that the world’s most populous country would become carbon neutral by 2060. This unexpected ambition from the Chinese surprised many, but largely came out of a pattern that has emerged over the past few years; one in which China has steadily become more visible on the international climate stage, slowly filling the gaping hole left behind with the election of resident climate denier Donald J. Trump.

A promise of carbon neutrality is great. But for the world’s largest contributor of GHG emissions, there is of course, a caveat.

As China invests in electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines at home, the growing superpower continues to pour billions of dollars into dirty development projects abroad. As a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese companies are helping foreign governments construct massive coal-based infrastructure, with 240 coal power plants built between 2001 and 2016 in various African and Asian countries. China’s environmental laws prevent corporations from making money off dirty energy domestically, but outside of its own borders, investing in fossil fuels is fair game. Leakage ensues.

The Biden climate plan confronts the BRI in several ways. First, it requires that future climate agreements with China demand an end to subsidies on carbon-intensive exports, and a promise to make foreign development projects more sustainable. Second, it emphasizes a need for the U.S to not only negotiate with China, but compete with them. A Biden administration will work to offer the BRI countries American money for cleaner projects that emit less GHGs. For the past decade, Chinese investment in African countries has greatly outpaced that of the United States. This may represent a turning point in the timeline. Finally, the plan proposes an effort to make carbon-intensive projects, such as those being developed through the BRI, more expensive and high-risk by reshaping International Monetary Fund policies and working with other countries to reform international debt forbearance.

4. Investment

A Joe Biden presidency could push the United States to the forefront of global climate change investment. Under Biden, the U.S will create a Clean Energy Export and Climate Investment Initiative to encourage clean energy innovation from American entrepreneurs, with a renewed interest in making the United States the global leader of the clean energy market. Through a promise to rejoin the Green Climate Fund, the U.S will also take on a much larger role in financing mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries. And by continuing the international objectives of President Obama’s Mission Innovation (and quadrupling the former president’s investment amounts), Biden will work with other countries to expand research and development for climate change.


Many of the policy goals outlined in the Joe Biden climate plan are still, at this point, rather vague. Particularly when it comes to the volatile world of international politics, strategies are often compromised or reworked. If Biden is elected President in November, he will be inheriting a recession and public health crisis in January. He will need to rebuild relations with allies, and restore tensions heightened with rivals. All these factors combined add up to one conclusion - there simply is no definitive way of predicting exactly what will come of international climate change policy with Joe Biden in the executive seat. And there is no definitive way of telling where Biden will stand on certain climate policies in the future. After all, just within the past six months, the candidate has ventured far from his much more moderate positions on the subject.

Precise estimates aside, one thing is clear. Biden’s plan is bold. Undoubtedly, it is not perfect, and it alone will not solve climate change. But Joe Biden could make history. Not only as the first president to make climate change a central part of the nation’s economic planning, but by making it a keystone in foreign diplomacy as well.

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