What a Biden presidency means for Canadian climate action

The president-elect’s promise to ramp up U.S. climate leadership will have far-reaching consequences, not just for the Keystone XL pipeline and the oilsands, but for Canada’s fledgling green economy

With U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration quickly approaching, the stage has been set for the world’s second-largest emitter to take renewed action on climate change that could spill over into Canada.

Biden put forward an ambitious vision for a clean energy transformation of the U.S. economy during the election campaign — pledging to rejoin the Paris Agreement and reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

And with Democrats snagging control of the Senate after winning both seats in Georgia’s runoff elections, Biden will be able to count on steady support for his environmental initiatives.

“It’s night and day within the U.S. to go from a president who rejects science and has been rolling back fairly modest measures to one that is promising 100 per cent clean electricity by 2035,” said Kathryn Harrison, a University of British Columbia political science professor who studies climate and energy policy.

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Biden will take office in the wake of a sustained effort by his predecessor to undermine key climate and environmental regulations and policies. More than 70 such rules — including vehicle emissions standards and controls on methane emissions from oil and gas — were eroded under the Trump administration, with efforts underway to weaken more than 25 others, according to a New York Times analysis.

U.S. climate action is crucial to global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: the country was responsible for 15 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, second only to China, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists’ analysis. 

“With or without the U.S., the world is not on track to meet the targets in the Paris climate agreement, but without the U.S. there’s absolutely no chance,” said Simon Donner, a climate scientist and geography professor at the University of British Columbia. 

Renewed commitment to climate action from a Biden administration could reverberate around the world.

“The U.S., for good and bad, is a leader economically around the world and the decisions the U.S. makes influences what other countries are willing to do,” Donner said.

Here’s where the President-elect stands on key climate and environment issues.

Biden pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement and ramp up climate action

The United States officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change on Nov. 4, the day after the U.S. election and a year after Trump gave notice to the United Nations. 

Biden, however, has pledged to rejoin the international accord and could do so as early as February.

That would provide “a shot in the arm” for the agreement, said Ravipal Bains, a McMillan LLP corporate lawyer with expertise in corporate governance and environmental and social governance issues.

Donner agreed. Even if passing legislation remains a challenge, it will mean a lot to have the U.S. “as an international champion” for climate action once again, he said.

Biden also campaigned on a $2 trillion plan to combat climate change that includes major investments in clean energy and a commitment to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035. 

His platform includes commitments to sign a number of executive orders “on day one” to put the country on track to meet its 2050 target and to push Congress to pass climate legislation with milestone targets and enforcement mechanisms within his first year in office. 

Biden also committed to major investments in clean energy research and innovation, clean infrastructure, including electric vehicle charging stations, and to — one day — ensure 100 per cent of new cars sold are electric. 

“He’s promising a pretty bold transformation of the U.S. economy pretty quickly,” Harrison said of the plan.

And any transformation in the U.S. is likely to spill over to other countries, according to Bains. 

“If the U.S. government takes a stance that they want to accelerate decommissioning of certain types of fuel sources, that will have ramifications in the U.S. economy and the broader global economy because many of the other economies take cues and are suppliers for the U.S.,” he said.

Emissions Kentucky

Emissions rise from an industrial facility in Kentucky. The U.S. was the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter after China in 2018, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Photo: Nik Shuliahin

The U.S. Senate, climate legislation and Biden’s options

Even a Democrat-controlled Senate won’t have guaranteed easy passage for effective climate legislation, experts say.

But Biden could have a meaningful impact through spending and regulation.

“The Obama administration, which Biden was a part of, showed that you can do a lot with regulations, even if you can’t pass a bill,” said Donner, pointing to the Clean Power Plan as an example.

“If it had been fully enacted, because of course Trump repealed parts of it, it would have probably reduced emissions about as much as the legislation would have,” he said.

Donner said he would expect to see Biden reverse Trump’s executive orders that weakened environmental regulations, but noted the courts could pose a challenge given the number of appointments Trump made during his presidency.

Several other initiatives, including energy efficiency retrofits, investments in public transit and electric vehicle charging stations, could be pushed forward through spending, Donner said.

Spending on climate adaptation measures may have more bipartisan support, in part because it wouldn’t necessarily have to be framed as a climate measure, he said.

“We shouldn’t discount the fact that with Biden as president, the Democrats have control of who’s appointed to run all the government agencies,” Donner added.

“That absolutely matters,” said Debora VanNijnatten, a Wilfrid Laurier University political science professor who studies transboundary environmental governance.

Under Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a marked deregulatory bent and prioritized the needs of the oil and gas industry, VanNijnatten said.

Under a Biden administration she expects “an absolute sea change in terms of what the U.S. EPA is and can do.”

‘Policies of the U.S. administration echo across the world’

Action on climate change in the U.S., Canada’s largest trading partner, should make it easier for Canada to take more ambitious climate action of its own, Harrison said, noting the federal government needs to implement additional measures to meet its 2030 targets.

Biden seems prepared to ensure other countries are pulling their weight. According to his platform, Biden would consider imposing “carbon adjustment fees or quotas on carbon-intensive goods from other countries that are failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations.”

Such climate tariffs could exert pressure on Canada and others to ensure their emissions reductions targets and regulations measure up to those adopted by Biden’s administration, Harrison explained.

A Biden presidency also offers a wide range of potential partners for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa, VanNijnatten said, noting that a number of the initiatives Canada and the U.S. were collaborating on, such as methane emissions and fuel efficiency standards, “ground to a halt” under the Trump administration. 

Bains said Biden’s plan will also create opportunities for Canadian clean tech companies through trade — and send a signal to investors that “green investments will be a key component of America’s growth.”

“As one of the world’s largest economies and as one of the globally leading centres of power, the policies of the U.S. administration echo across the world,” he said.

That could serve as a “wake-up call that Canadian industry has to get their act together because our major trading market could be transforming rapidly and we risk getting left behind,” Harrison said.

Biden promised to scrap Keystone XL

A key concern for Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government in Alberta will be the future of the Keystone XL pipeline 

The province bet $1.5 billion on the project moving forward earlier this year, but Biden has said he would cancel the controversial pipeline. 

The day before the U.S. election, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan reiterated the federal government’s support for the pipeline, which could ship 830,000 barrels of crude a day from Alberta to the U.S.

In an interview with Global News, O’Regan said “there is a very, very strong argument for the Keystone project that continues regardless of who the president of the United States is.”

“We will continue to make that argument strongly,” he added.

Biden climate change plans affect Keystone XL pipeline construction in Alberta

Construction of the Alberta section of the Keystone XL pipeline began near the town of Oyen in July 2020. Photo: Government of Alberta / Flickr

Should Biden scrap the project it could make it easier for Canada to meet its climate targets if the cancellation wards off an anticipated increase in oil production, Harrison said.

But it’s likely to increase pressure from the industry to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, she added.

Bains, however, said given the scope of Biden’s clean stimulus plans, Keystone XL may not be among the first issues he examines.

“The Canadian government has been in favour of this project so there may be opportunities where they can engage with their American counterparts,” he said.

“Short of having specific guidance from the Biden administration on how they plan to deal with these issues, I think there will be opportunity for cooperation with respect to Alberta as well, because from a U.S. perspective getting oil from Alberta is more cost efficient than from a number of international markets,” he added.

Biden’s climate plans could affect Canada’s oil industry

Other Biden climate measures could impact the oil industry as well, including a commitment to phase out the sale of new gas-powered cars — a step that would significantly reduce U.S. oil consumption, Harrison noted.

Donner said simply shifting U.S. government procurement to electric vehicles could have a significant impact.

Any measures that increase the supply of green energy and reduce U.S. demand for oil are likely to affect the Canadian oil and gas industry and more broadly the transition to a clean economy in Canada, according to VanNijnatten.

“The quicker that transition happens in the U.S., the quicker the transition is happening in Canada,” she said.

The Trudeau government may also encounter less pushback from industry on climate measures if Biden moves forward with similar initiatives, in turn alleviating Canadian concerns of a competitive disadvantage.

Permanent protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Hulahula River flows north to the Beaufort Sea, from the Brooks range mountains in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Matt Jacques / The Narwhal

Biden’s platform includes a commitment to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area of roughly 8 million hectares in northeastern Alaska that includes the critical calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, from oil and gas development. 

In August, the Trump administration took another step toward allowing oil and gas development in the previously protected area, when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior signed a decision approving the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The decision made about 8 per cent of the area available for oil and gas leasing. 

Trump’s efforts to open the area to development have met with major political opposition and lawsuits from the Gwich’in Steering Committee and environmental groups, concerned about the threat to wildlife, food security, and culture. 

Alongside protections for the refuge, Biden said he would push for a global moratorium on offshore drilling in the Arctic.

Biden climate action could ease impacts of U.S. wildfires

While commitments to reduce emissions in the coming years may help avoid the worst effects of climate change, it is already taking a toll in the U.S. and Canada. 

Hotter, drier weather, for instance, has dramatically increased the risk for wildfires each year.

In California alone, wildfires burned more than 1.7 million hectares this year — an area almost three times the size of Prince Edward Island — destroying more than 10,000 structures and killing 31 people.

California wildfire 2020

San Francisco covered in an orange haze during the 2020 wildfires. Photo: Thom Milkovic

While B.C.’s own wildfire season was relatively quiet, smoke from fires along the west coast of the U.S. blanketed southern B.C. for days.

Biden pointed to the fires as evidence of the need for concerted action on climate change.

“If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze,” Biden said during a September campaign stop in Delaware, USA Today reported. 

“We need a president who respects science, who understands that the damage from climate change is already here and unless we take urgent action, it’ll soon be more catastrophic.”

For those communities already impacted by natural disasters, Biden promised investments in efforts to adapt to climate change, creating new jobs and more resilient communities.

—With files from Julien Gignac

Update Jan. 8, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect the results of Georgia’s runoff elections.

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