The US presidential election on 3 November will not just be a pivotal moment for the United States, but also for the global fight against climate change.

President Donald Trump’s America will formally leave the 197-nation Paris Agreement the day after the election, and a second Trump term would likely see him doubling down on his administration’s pro-fossil-fuels policies, watering down of emissions regulations and deepening its climate denial.

“[The climate will] start getting cooler; you just watch,” was Trump’s response to the unprecedented wildfires on the US West Coast in mid-September, contradicting all the scientific evidence.

Other countries dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and associated recessions could well ask themselves: “If the US, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases per capita, is not fighting climate change, why should we bother?”

By contrast, Trump’s Democrat challenger Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris accord within 24 hours of arriving in the White House, with a plan to spend at least $2trn on climate-related actions.

“If Biden’s bid fails, the US will forfeit four more years in the fight against climate change,” says Dan Shreve, research director at Wood Mackenzie. The consultancy believes the election outcome will “dictate the pace of decarbonisation for decades”.

Biden’s big climate plans

Biden is proposing a massive $2trn federal climate plan and related actions in his first term that aim to set the US on course towards a green, sustainable economy and help it recover from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic — the fastest and steepest recession in the nation’s history.

“We’re not going to tinker around the edges,” said the former vice-president. “We can and we will deal with climate change. It is not only a crisis. It is an enormous opportunity. An opportunity for America to lead the world in clean energy and create millions of new good-paying jobs in the process.”

Trump on climate change

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” (Nov 2012)

“I’m not a believer in man-made global warming.” (Sep 2015)

“Obama’s talking about all of this with the global warming and... a lot of it’s a hoax. It’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money-making industry, OK? It’s a hoax, a lot of it.” (Dec 2015)

“In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against.” (Dec 2017)

“I have a natural instinct for science.” (Oct 2018)

“Is there climate change? Yeah. Will it change back? Probably. That’s what I think.” (Nov 2018)

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor.” (Nov 2018)

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself—we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers [in climate change].” (Nov 2018)

“I’m an environmentalist. I am. I want the cleanest water on the planet. I want the cleanest air anywhere.” (Dec 2019)

“It’ll start getting cooler; you just watch.” (Sep 2020)

At its core, Biden’s Build Back Better plan is about the federal government reassuming leadership for tackling the climate crisis with a multi-pronged approach that has more ambition than anything President Barack Obama’s administration sought to accomplish.

The Obama-inspired $787bn American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, also in response to a severe economic downturn, targeted more than $85bn for clean energy initiatives including federal loan guarantees and tax credits for renewables that ignited a boom in new solar and wind generation. Still, the programme was controversial as loan guarantees to failed battery and solar firms cost taxpayers more than $600m.

This time around, Biden promises his plan will be, “bigger, faster and smarter”. He claims his strategy would place the US on a trajectory to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 2050, which is consistent with the Paris Agreement — and do so without the economy-wide cap-and-trade system sought by Obama or carbon pricing favoured by progressive Democrats.

A major focus of Biden’s plan is elimination or a significant reduction in emissions from five main CO2 sources — electricity, transport, homes, commercial businesses and heavy industry — that account for 81% of US GHGs.

For this to happen, renewables would need to significantly increase their share of US primary energy consumption, which has stagnated at 11% under Trump. That compares with oil (38%), natural gas (32%), coal (11%) and nuclear (8%).

Biden’s plan targets installation of “millions of solar panels and tens of thousands of wind turbines” including thousands at sea — a strong signal that offshore wind would play a key role in the country’s energy future. The offshore wind sector already has 29GW in capacity procurement commitments from East Coast states, but growth has been hampered by federal permitting delays and lukewarm Trump support.

Biden intends to provide a more level playing field with tax policies for clean energy technologies — firstly, with a multi-year extension of tax credits for all renewables projects and complimentary standalone battery storage; and secondly by reducing the country’s substantial fossil-fuel subsidies.

His plan also calls for major public investments to create a domestic supply chain for clean-energy manufacturing with “Made in America” requirements capable of meeting much greater long-term demand, although the details of what these might entail have yet to emerge.

In addition, Biden also proposes the country’s first-ever clean energy mandate for grid electricity, making it carbon-free by 2035. While there would be compliance penalties, he wants a less adversarial approach than Obama in the expectation this will achieve better results.

He may be right. Aside from a few recalcitrant holdouts, the power sector has undergone a sea change in attitude with regards to renewables and sustainability issues in recent years, despite Trump, with record new wind and solar additions displacing coal.

Reasons for this conversion include climate change and growing pressure to act from customers, employees, investors, and stakeholders; greater cost-competitiveness of batteries, solar and wind and surging market demand for all three, and technology advances that promise to increase efficiency and profitability.

Such a transformation for the complex and sprawling US network — the world’s largest — with more than 3,000 electricity suppliers would be an enormous undertaking.

“The deployment of 1.5 terawatts of renewable generation in less than 15 years is a daunting task. Doing so at that scale and speed would shake up the hierarchy of the energy industry and turn the power market on its head,” says Shreve.

Wood Mackenzie puts the cost for a nationwide retrofit at an eye-popping $4.5trn with current technology although Biden has not given a price tag.

The Democrat’s plans do not specify whether some gas-fired plants could remain open with carbon capture and storage, if plant owners would receive financial compensation from ratepayers for writing off assets years or decades ahead of schedule, or where replacement clean energy infrastructure might be located.

“It is ambitious but also consistent with what scientists say we need to do,” says Greg Wetstone, chief executive of the American Council on Renewable Energy, who believes that with the right investments the grid makeover is achievable. “I think we can get there. Absolutely.”

The Trump campaign has a different view, with national press secretary Hogan Gidley describing Biden’s plan as “more like a socialist manifesto that promises to massively raise taxes, eliminate jobs in the coal, oil or natural gas industries, and crush the middle class”.

With transportation responsible for 37% of US CO2 emissions, Biden would aggressively support expansion of American electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing and sales with federal investment and larger tax credits. That would help address EVs’ current high cost and limited supply, and boost demand for green electricity.

For light-duty vehicles that use petrol, he intends to significantly raise average fuel economy standards, which Trump cut, from 55 miles per gallon (23km per litre) by 2025 to 40mpg by 2026. This would further reduce emissions, as would rebuilding and upgrading urban mass transit.”

Congress make-up key

Biden’s ability to enact his climate plan’s headline programmes will depend on the post-election make-up of Congress, which would have to legislate to make Biden’s net-zero emissions target and grid clean-energy standards legally binding — and provide the $2trn-plus of federal funding. That is a lot of money amid record federal budget deficits, although the cost of borrowing is cheap due to low interest rates.

“I think there will be significant support for continuing to invest in the renewables industry to create the right playing field in the next Congress,” says Tom Kiernan, chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association, noting lawmakers are aware most Americans favour more clean energy investment in the next four years.

Congress would also have the final say on elimination or reduction of the myriad fossil-fuel subsidies in the federal tax code. Such cuts have been politically contentious but may be easier to make now against the backdrop of the climate-fuelled extreme weather — heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes and storms — that has shaken the country in recent months.

Getting Congress to act would be much easier in November if Democrats retain their solid majority in the House and can win control of the Senate, where Republicans currently have a 53-47 edge. Democrats have the advantage with only 11 senators up for election in November versus 23 Republicans.

A slim Republican majority would not necessarily spell doom for Biden’s plans, although he would have to temper his ambitions. Republicans might be willing to fund additional stimulus spending for infrastructure upgrades such as long-haul transmission and business tax credits.

Biden would be among the most experienced politicians to enter the White House and that could help him sell his plan, which he has astutely positioned as a way to get millions of Americans back to work and help rebuild the economy. The former vice-president spent 36 years in the Senate, where he is on good terms with leaders of both parties, and is less confrontational than the polarising Trump and not as partisan as Obama.

Equally important, Biden says he is ready to develop major legislation with Republicans who would be under public pressure to cooperate with a new leader.

Elsewhere, Biden should make good on promises to reverse Trump’s executive and regulatory actions that enabled higher GHG emissions, such as rolling back Obama-era rules on vehicle emissions standards, methane leakage and gas flaring.

His clean-energy push, however, could face opposition from his own party where some environmentalists oppose renewables development on public lands, streamlining the costly and lengthy federal permitting process for energy projects, and allowing hydraulic fracturing by the oil industry to continue.

For his part, Biden is looking ahead. That 2050 deadline, he says, “is a million years from now [for] most people. My plan is focused on taking action — now. God willing, I win and even if I serve eight years, I want to make sure we put down a marker that’s impossible for the next president to turn it around.”

Climate campaigners around the world will be crossing their fingers that American voters will choose a brighter, cleaner future when they cast their ballots.