Trumping progress or Clinton’s clean opportunity – The future of US climate policy after the elections

In many respects the United States presidential election of 2016 could be decisive for the US, and the world, not least for the direction of climate policy. While many of the world’s largest emitters, e.g. China and the European Union, have implemented ambitious climate policies and are looking for ways to strengthen those further, the global leadership of the US is still critical. As one of the world’s largest emitters, U.S. action, or inaction, in the next four years could determine the success of meeting the global climate change challenge. As US voters head to the polls to elect their president, and other representatives, uncertainty about the election outcome still remains high.

While the US and the rest of the world are anxiously following the latest numbers, and pollsters and modellers are frantically updating their forecasts, it is not hard to predict that US climate policy would look vastly different depending on who would be elected. Donald Trump has vowed to cut all federal climate change spending, repeal the Clean Power Plan (CPP), withdraw from the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, and has called anthropogenic climate change a Chinese hoax. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, acknowledges that climate change is real and wants to make the US the ‘world’s clean energy superpower’. The future direction of US climate policy, particularly at the federal level, is therefore highly dependent on the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election[1].

So what could Donald Trump actually do to US climate policy if elected president? Donald Trump has announced that he would repeal the Clean Power Plan through executive action. There are several reasons why doing so would be very difficult, but not impossible, including:

  • Under existing law, the US environmental regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has not only the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, but also an obligation to do so.
  • Any change to regulations (including repeal) must go through the same type of rigorous public notice and comment process that the original regulations went through. So changing them takes significant political commitment and several years.
  • The subsequent rule making must take account of the administrative record compiled to support the original rule. In the case of the Clean Power Plan this record includes hundreds of pages of technical documents and responses to 4.5 million public comments that were developed to support the final rule. A repeal or change to the regulations that does not adequately address the record that supported the regulations in the first place is more susceptible to being invalidated as ‘arbitrary and capricious’ by a reviewing court.

Nevertheless, since the president also appoints the head of the EPA, this could be another route to delay implementation even if the Clean Power Plan is not repealed outright. The indications are that this is the intention because Donald Trump has selected a prominent climate sceptic to lead the transition plan for the EPA. Congress could also pass amendments to the Clean Air Act (CAA), the United States’ only comprehensive federal law to regulate air pollution, including greenhouse gases, to invalidate the regulations even after they take effect. Such a legislative change would be politically contentious and is only likely to be possible if Republicans retained majority control of the House, gained the Presidency, and extended their majority in the Senate to 60 or more seats.[2]

In contrast, if Hillary Clinton were elected president, one could assume that President Obama’s main policies and plans would be continued. The question is if Hillary Clinton would make climate policy a key issue to deliver on. While she does have an ambitious policy proposal on the issue, including the goal to “make America the world’s clean energy superpower”, climate change has appeared very little during her campaign, with only one main speech dedicated to the issue. This might be partially due to the current political climate, but given other pressing issues such as healthcare reform, boosting the US economy and women’s rights- she has advocated for women’s rights much more openly- it is uncertain whether she would have the political capital or will to make ambitious climate policy part of her legacy.

If she were to do so, she would need to look for further tools to increase the ambition of the climate policies already in place. Without controlling the house or senate, which have not shown any will to pass climate change legislation, she may have to rely on executive authority. Barack Obama has relied almost entirely on executive branch action to drive climate policy during his term. One source of authority under which this may be able to happen and implement additional measures to make US climate policy more rigorous is found in an existing provision in the Clean Air Act (CAA). Section 115 of the Act, titled ‘International Air Pollution’ could provide the EPA and the states with the legal basis to establish an economy-wide, market-based approach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Aside from the outcome of the presidential elections, some interesting coalitions could form the basis for cross-party climate action. Elements of the most conservative tea party faction of the Republican Party support distributed solar and wind generation because these promote individual independence from state and private monopolies in the electricity sector. Some conservatives believe that a carbon tax would be an effective policy if it were paired with substantial reform of US tax policy overall. For example, the five-year tax credits supporting wind and solar are established in legislation and support for renewables deployment is broadly popular in the US. Finally, substantial policies at the state and local levels, including increasingly ambitious targets for deploying renewables and improving energy efficiency are expected to continue. On 16 February, 2016, a bipartisan group of 17 governors signed an accord outlining their states’ commitments to pursue clean energy options in electricity generation and transportation.

The implementation of several federal policies, particularly the regulations under the CAA, is primarily undertaken by U.S. states. States also have the power to develop climate policies under their own authority – so long as they do not infringe on the authority of the federal government or conflict with federal laws. California, in particular, has been a leader in implementing policies to combat climate change. Although these initiatives only cover some of the US, they are still significant. This means that one could see emission reduction efforts at state and local levels even if those at the federal level lag, although these would have less impact than concerted efforts at national scale. Therefore, while a Republican Presidency would greatly undermine ambitious climate policy in the US, it could not completely eliminate climate supportive efforts.

Finally, the market trends of rapidly declining costs of solar and wind (as well as low-priced natural gas) will continue to put significant pressure on coal generation. Market forces therefore will play a role in deciding on US climate and energy policy, ideology and politics aside. As to the future of US climate policy and the likelihood of the US to increase its climate policy ambition, this will be clearer once the results of the 2016 presidential election are in.

[1] The following assessment is based on the forthcoming study Averchenkova, A., Bassi, S., Benes, K., Green, F., Neuweg, I., Lagarde, A. and Zachmann, G. (forthcoming). Climate policy in China, the European Union and the United States: Main Drivers and Prospects for the Future. Policy Paper. Grantham Research Institute.

[2] The 60 seat majority would be required because under current Senate rules, 60 votes are typically necessary to close debate on a bill and bring it to a vote. Neither political party has held a reliable 60 vote majority in the Senate in modern times.