In Canada, so much attention was paid to Joe Biden’s very first acts as U.S. president, especially the cancelling of the Keystone XL pipeline. A big reason was the Canadian media framing this primarily as a Canada story rather than one about U.S. dependence on oil – or worse, an incoming president treating Canada poorly despite the importance of our economic and diplomatic relationship.

Less attention was paid to Biden’s subsequent moves, though they have been much more consequential in terms of climate action. They reveal that none of this has ever been about one pipeline project or Canada. It is about the new U.S. administration getting real about reducing the production and use of fossil fuels given they are the primary source of climate change.

For all Canada’s shiny climate announcements, our country has never come close to incorporating climate action into the fabric of decision-making in this way. The breadth and ambition of the climate actions are astounding. Biden’s climate pledges have three major lessons for Canada:

Big lesson #1: Put climate change at the centre of government decision-making

According to Biden’s executive orders, climate considerations will be “an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security.” A new climate envoy will sit on the National Security Council, one of the most important decision-making bodies in the U.S. government.

The U.S. isn’t just back in the Paris Agreement. The U.S. will also be pressing for greater ambition on climate change and its integration into a wide range of international agreements and conventions.

Biden is also creating a whole new Office of Domestic Climate Policy in the White House, led by a national climate advisor, to co-ordinate and implement climate policies. Also, a National Climate Task Force will bring together leaders from all 21 federal agencies to ensure a “whole-of-government approach to combatting the climate crisis.”

Finally, the president is also directing federal agencies to use their buying power to expand the domestic market for zero-emitting electricity and zero-emitting vehicles. This is not small potatoes. U.S. government spending makes up 20 per cent of the U.S. economy, and this economic power is being used to accelerate the clean energy transition.

These proposals aren’t just vague instructions given to ministers. They involve the creation of a new institutional structure in government, and a fundamentally different framework for making decisions.

Big Lesson #2: Cut fossil fuel production

Fossil fuels cause climate change, and so addressing the climate emergency requires cutting fossil fuel production. That is the undeniable fact that governments in Canada continue to deny. For example, the federal Liberal, Alberta Conservative, and B.C. NDP governments have all approved and subsidized oil and gas expansion while claiming to take climate action.

But Biden tackles this fact head-on in numerous ways:

  • stopping oil and gas leases in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge
  • promising to get the U.S. electricity system off all fossil fuels by 2035
  • halting new oil and gas leases on federal lands and the offshore, and reviewing existing leases
  • stopping all infrastructure projects that do not decrease carbon pollution

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney can take umbrage over the Keystone XL pipeline, but looking at these decisions together makes it clear the new president’s agenda is so much broader than one pipeline project. It is about addressing America’s addiction to fossil fuels.

And there are other measures that will decrease the supply of fossil fuels. The U.S. will eliminate federal fossil fuel subsidies, while Canada has for over a decade weaseled out of real action by considering whether those subsidies are “inefficient” or not. The U.S. also plans on ending the financing of fossil fuel projects overseas. Export Development Canada, meanwhile, spends over $10 billion per year financing fossil fuel projects, mostly oil and gas.

Not only will these measures help get the U.S. off fossil-based energy, the president’s executive orders will also spur the development of climate solutions, for example with the 2030 goals of doubling U.S. offshore wind production and conserving 30 per cent of U.S. land and waters to protect biodiversity and natural carbon stores.

Big lesson #3: Make environmental justice the mission of every federal agency

The president has directed every federal agency to develop programs and policies to address the fact that disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of environmental pollution, climate impacts, and ecological degradation. Biden has created two environmental justice councils in the White House to co-ordinate relevant agencies and embed this goal in the federal government’s decision-making.

This is not just a theoretical exercise. The new administration has set the goal of having 40 per cent of the benefits of relevant federal investments go to these communities.

The president has also created an inter-agency working group to develop programs to assist communities that will be affected by the phase-out of coal, oil, and natural gas. And to clean up the mess these industries have left behind.

A more comprehensive energy and economic transition strategy is still needed, but a good first step is acknowledging that communities dependent on fossil fuels will need both a plan and support as those industries decline. Canadian governments have yet to take the fundamental first step when it comes to oil and gas.

A revolutionary approach

Every one of these big changes is a major shift away from the way the U.S. has acted on energy and climate change at any point in its history. Taken together, they are nothing less than revolutionary.

They go beyond making major sources of carbon pollution a little less carbon-intensive – making cars more fuel-efficient, for example, or reducing potent methane emissions from oil and gas wells. Those initiatives are there, too, and have been adopted by many countries including Canada.

But these plans are a fundamentally different approach to economic and energy development. Canadians should note that Biden is not proposing to merely tinker around the edges and make the climate crisis a little less devastating. This new approach is a structural shift away from fossil fuels and accelerating the development and penetration of climate solutions such as renewable energy and electric vehicles.

And, importantly, the message from Biden is that this can be done while embedding justice – taking care of those whose communities are most impacted by climate change, whose health is most imperiled by pollution, and whose livelihoods and communities are most affected by phasing out fossil fuels.

Some will note that the president’s agenda is unlikely to be fully implemented as he and his Democratic allies face partisan obstacles in Congress and the “checks and balances” reality of U.S. policy-making. That is true. Nonetheless, many here would applaud any Canadian government that proposed an approach this ambitious and visionary to address the most important challenge of this century, and then worked to realize it.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by Ronnie Chua.

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 
Dale Marshall
Dale Marshall is the national climate program manager at Environmental Defence. He has worked on environmental protection, mostly related to energy and climate change, for over 20 years.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

How can Canada support recovery efforts in the global south? Join us on January 21 for a webinar.