Wharton’s Brian Berkey talks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about how Biden’s administration could tackle climate change.

On November 4, the United States officially withdrew from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord — the ending of the mandatory one-year notice period after President Donald Trump notified the United Nations last November. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the climate agreement on his first day in office.

If the U.S. rejoins the accord, that “by itself gives us good reason to think that the U.S. will be on at least a somewhat better path” in terms of its efforts to mitigate climate change, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics Brian Berkey said on the Wharton Business Daily radio show that airs on SiriusXM on November 5, before the election was officially called. (Listen to the full podcast above.) He noted that the U.S. is the No. 2 emitter of carbon dioxide globally.

“Having us as part of the agreement, where there’s an official commitment to substantial emissions reductions, gives other countries some assurance that we will be part of this effort, and their efforts won’t be overwhelmed by … our refusal to participate,” Berkey added.

According to Berkey, “the most important” aspect of the Paris agreement is “that countries get on a path to not just meeting their pledges, but on a path to reducing emissions enough so that our collective efforts will limit warming to, say, 2 degrees Celsius or 1.5 degrees if you endorse the more ambitious target.”

Berkey pointed out that the pledges that each signatory country makes are voluntary. Of the 195 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, 189 went on to formally adopt the accord, a New York Times report noted. Berkey added that the re-entry process could take about six months, which means that after Biden takes office in January, the U.S. may be officially be back into the Paris Agreement by mid-2021.

Potential Constraints

How successful the Biden administration would be in bringing about serious momentum in addressing climate change issues depends a lot on his ability to push his proposals past Congress.

In an ideal world, “the more ambitious and not terribly likely things would be some kind of serious carbon tax or some kind of cap and trade system, or something along these lines,” said Berkey. Unless Democrats are able to take control of the Senate, “it’s unlikely that any really significant policy changes will be able to go through.” Control of the Senate won’t be known until races in North Carolina and Alaska are called, and until the completion of two runoff races in Georgia in January, a Wall Street Journal report pointed out.

The path isn’t clear for Biden as president to implement his plans through executive action. However, it does appear that the Environmental Protection Agency would function “very differently” in a Biden administration than under President Trump, who is accused of systematically eroding its ability to combat environmental pollution, said Berkey.

One approach Biden could take is to regulate carbon dioxide pollution more strongly than under the Trump administration, he said. Establishing tough rules for auto emissions and reviving the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan are among some options for the Biden administration to fuel to its climate control agenda, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

“But without control of the Congress, or the Senate, at least, there’s a lot that won’t be accomplished without some Republican support,” Berkey said.

“Without control of the Congress, or the Senate, at least, there’s a lot that won’t be accomplished without some Republican support.” –Brian Berkey

Emissions Rebound

In somewhat of a counter trend, carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have fallen in recent months, although that is because of reduced business activity in the wake of the pandemic. “The first half of 2020 saw an unprecedented decline in emissions — larger than during the financial crisis of 2008, the oil crisis of the 1979, or even World War II,” according to a report in Science Daily.

It’s certainly not the case that the U.S. has gotten its climate control act together because emissions have reduced significantly in 2020. “A lot of things that people would normally do that generate emissions are things that they’re not doing currently [because of the pandemic],” Berkey noted.

That said, “it’s not entirely clear what we should expect in terms of a resurgence of emissions once we’ve managed to get through the pandemic and move toward a full reopening,” said Berkey. “I would imagine that there is going to be some increase [in emissions], at least initially. People will be traveling more, driving more. Spread out over 330 million, people will have some impact. Of course, there’s likely to be more business activity of a number of kinds that produce emissions.”