Feature Article

The Next Four Years

The Biden-Harris administration may be the most important ever relative to the environment.

long voting line selfie in the rain

People stood in long lines to vote, resulting in historically high turnout.

Photo: Bryna Dunn
With a new president and the first-ever woman vice president starting next month, we thought it would be an opportune time to weigh in on priorities for the next four years.

It has been a rough four years for the environment with the Trump administration. How can our nation get back on track in addressing some of the most pressing problems ever faced by our nation? Climate change is at the top of the list, but we will begin the Biden administration in the middle of a worsening pandemic. What are the priorities? How should the administration move forward?

Celebrating Progress

Before looking ahead at the Biden administration, it’s worth looking back over the past four years. Despite President Trump’s open hostility to many of the environmental priorities that guided the Obama administration during the preceding eight years, there is actually a lot that we can celebrate:

  • Despite efforts to prop up the struggling coal industry, more than 50 coal-fired power plants were shut down by utility companies between 2017 and 2019, with at least that number set to retire soon. And the share of U.S. power production from coal-fired power plants dropped from 40% in 2016 to 32% in 2019. Those power plants are being replaced with cleaner technologies that contribute less to climate change.
  • Wind and solar development have been strong since 2016. At the utility scale, renewable power production, excluding solar and hydroelectric, has increased from 1.8% to 2.1%. Solar power production has increased from 0.09% to 0.3%. The totals are still relatively small, but the upward trend has continued, fueled to a significant extent by falling costs. Globally, the cost of generating solar photovoltaic power has plummeted 82% since 2010, while onshore wind has dropped 39%, according to the International Renewable Energy Association.
  • Electric vehicle sales are increasing. Department of Energy data show that EV sales in the U.S. more than doubled between 2016 and 2019—even as a drop in gasoline prices has lessened the motivation to conserve energy. Americans are buying EVs because they’re fun to drive, they offer exceptional performance, and they’re cool! Investors clearly believe in the future of EVs, because the dominant manufacturer of EVs, Tesla, has a market value more than seven times that of General Motors—even though Tesla sales and profitability are far lower than those of GM.
  • Green building hasn’t slowed down. From 2017 through 2019, some 7,742 commercial buildings with a combined 1.6 billion square feet of floor space have been certified through the LEED rating systems. The Living Building Challenge is going strong, and the WELL Building Standard has emerged as an important new entry in the green building certification world. Building owners, developers, and renters of these buildings care, and we all benefit.

Many sustainability advocates were disappointed that there wasn’t an overwhelming mandate for change through both the presidential election and down-ballot races. Certainly, a bigger margin of victory for the Biden-Harris ticket and down-ticket gains by Democrats would have made it easier for the Biden administration to push through a more rigorous environmental agenda.

It is possible, however, that the need to build a bipartisan coalition to advance the Biden agenda will prove to be a good thing in the long run. Gains that are made in addressing climate change, supporting renewable energy, advancing environmental policies, and promoting racial equity may prove more lasting with the support of a broader coalition of Americans. If Biden can reach across the aisle, it can be the American team—not just the "blue" team—that sets our policy and moves the nation in a more sustainable, more equitable, and more resilient direction.

Even in areas where it’s not possible to achieve bipartisan support for legislation, the new administration has executive and regulatory powers that can go a long way toward making the world a better place. These administrative actions are the primary focus of our recommendations.

Priorities for the Biden-Harris Administration

1. Be a president and vice president for all Americans and re-establish trust across the political spectrum

Biden and Harris need to rebuild not only the trust that was lost during the Trump years but also trust that has eroded in recent decades that led to a populist like Trump coming to power.

The Biden administration needs to reach out to Red as well as Blue states, to blue-collar and white-collar Americans.

presidential electoral map 2020

We are a divided nation. Biden needs to be a president for both Red and Blue states.

Source: Free Vector Maps
Biden will enter office with a large segment of the U.S. population believing that he somehow stole the election and likely with a Republican Senate that chose not to dispel those claims. This will make his work at “Building Back Better” a lot harder, but doing so is a top priority.

In Congress, Biden and Harris should look to predecessors like President Bill Clinton and Senator Ted Kennedy for insights into how to reach across the aisle and build bipartisanship.

From the presidential bully pulpit, it’s imperative that Biden appeal to everyone’s patriotic pride in the foundations of our nation, building widespread public support for the common good—reinvigorating the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, returning to scientific consensus on climate, re-committing to environmental justice, and acting to make our communities more resilient to climate change as well as to terrorist attacks and other disruptions.

2. Undo the most immediate damage

The Biden administration should examine the executive orders that the Trump administration put in place during the last four years—and that will still be issued during the lame duck session between now and January 20, 2021. According to the National Archives’ Federal Register, some 194 executive orders have been issued since January 2017 covering everything from immigration to mercury emissions from power plants.

These executive orders undo decades of progress on environmental protection—actions undertaken by Democratic and Republican administrations alike—not just actions of the Obama administration. Among the more significant actions are the following (The New York Times has a full list):

  • Eliminating regulations designed to protect human health and the environment—Executive Order #13771 required agencies to revoke two regulations for every one proposed.
  • Giving a free ride to fossil fuel and nuclear industries—Executive Order #13783 ordered a cross-agency review of environmental and safety regulations that were considered “burdensome” to the oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy industries, including revocation of a 2013 executive order regarding climate preparedness.
  • Limiting which waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act—Executive Order #13778 led to new EPA rulemaking rolling back Obama-era regulations that included waterways such as tributaries and wetlands under federal jurisdiction.

Regulatory agencies also took action—dramatically reducing fuel economy standards for vehicles, ending limits on methane emissions from gas and oil wells, removing home lending protections for low-income communities, rolling back regulations on mercury emissions from coal plants, and gutting the Endangered Species Act.

wind turbine capacity, operating and planned, 2006–2020

Wind turbine capacity is growing rapidly in the U.S., greening the grid and creating jobs.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
The most egregious actions by the Trump administration should be reversed during the first weeks of the Biden presidency, but a high-level team at the White House should also pursue more permanent, bipartisan, legislative actions to ensure greater permanence of such policies. By presenting such actions as benefiting all Americans and using bipartisan commissions to come up with the specific regulations, it may be possible to garner Republican support.

Reversing actions of the Trump administration should be done carefully—keeping in mind the fact that the U.S. electorate is deeply divided, and there are very real economic impacts of many environmental regulations—and that it was a mantra of regulatory reform that helped to propel Trump into office. This country is going through a significant economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we should be focusing on environmental solutions that help to improve the economy, not harm it.

3. Pursue environmental justice

Whether it’s climate change, air pollution, or water quality, the impacts of environmental degradation are not distributed evenly across society. People of color and those living in poverty are disproportionately affected. They suffer most acutely from urban heat islands. They are the ones who live in fence-line communities near factories, landfills, large highways, Superfund sites, power plants, and fossil fuel infrastructure. They are often the most vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise. And they tend to reside in older, more rundown buildings that shed lead from paint and pipes.

The executive branch has considerable power when it comes to addressing environmental justice on federal projects and those receiving federal funding.

The EPA has a longstanding Office of Environmental Justice, which provides grants to the private sector as well as offering cross-agency guidance on how to take environmental justice into account during rulemaking. No grants have been awarded since 2017, the year President Trump took office. The Trump administration also shifted the Office of Environmental Justice into the Office of Policy, putting it under direct political supervision. President-elect Biden should reverse that shift, reinstate the office’s grant programs, and take up the Obama administration’s strategic plan for advancing environmental justice across all EPA activities. That plan includes a commitment to working with partners, and under the Biden administration, these partners should include indigenous groups and civil rights NGOs.

It’s not just the EPA that can promote environmental justice. The Department of Energy (DOE) also has programs, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), that provide funds to low-income families. The WAP works through states to distribute home weatherization grants that, according to DOE, save families an average of $283 per year. But the program has underperformed due to limited funding, lack of effective marketing, and the difficulty of applying. The Biden administration should ask for stimulus funding from Congress for the WAP while also using existing funding to make deeper inroads into communities where people are most in need of weatherization—primarily by partnering with nonprofit organizations in these communities.

Finally, President-elect Biden should make environmental justice a high priority again by reminding agencies to abide by Executive Order 12898. This 1994 order, which established the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, directs agencies to make achieving environmental justice part of their mission. An immediate action should be to rescind the executive order prohibiting federal agencies from carrying out diversity training.

4. Increase housing equity

For decades, three laws have combined to mitigate redlining and other housing injustices: the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), Fair Housing Act (FHA), and Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA). All three have been weakened under the Trump administration—to the point where civil rights groups are raising an alarm that redlining could make a strong comeback.

The CRA is the primary law designed to stop redlining—the practice of denying loans based on a person’s or business’s neighborhood. This law is under threat, with a new rule out of the Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC) favoring banks over citizens. With President-elect Biden at the wheel, there’s hope for reversing this rule and replacing it with cross-agency regulations that are forward-looking and are crafted through consultation with a broad stakeholder group. The Federal Reserve Board has already begun this process, and that needs to move forward under Biden, along with a reversal of OCC’s final rule.

The FHA, signed into law in 1968, was designed to prevent discriminatory practices such as denying the sale or rental of a home to someone based on race. Part of the act is a provision called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), which requires federal agencies to be proactive in their rulemaking relating to housing. For decades, the provision was not well defined or enforced. So in 2015, the Obama administration instated new rules requiring municipalities that receive federal funding to report publicly on racial segregation and to create plans to remedy such segregation. The Trump administration reversed this rule with the stated intention of preventing low-income housing from moving into the suburbs. The Biden administration should review the AFFH rule as previously written, engage in an open process with a broad stakeholder group, and write new rules designed to reduce neighborhood segregation by race.

The HMDA’s goal is to hold mortgage lenders accountable for potentially discriminatory practices. Among other things, it requires lenders to publicly report data on ethnicity, race, and gender in relation to loan amounts and types made. The Trump administration changed which types of institutions—mostly very large lenders—must report data, reduced the number of data points required, and eliminated penalties. These changes effectively “defanged” the rule, according to Housing Wire. The Biden administration can remedy this by reaching out to both lenders and civil rights groups for input on new rules that meet the needs of both groups.

5. Embrace science, especially the reality of climate change

Respect for science has to be restored in America. The speed at which vaccines were developed for COVID-19 demonstrates the importance of science. Our nation was built and prospered on a foundation of scientific and technical advancement. We have some of the best universities in the world, and America continues to be the world’s hotbed of technical innovation and creativity. We must ensure that we are able to remain leaders in this realm.

That is especially important with the science of climate change. President Biden should adopt something like Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats to convince the public that a) anthropogenic climate change is real and b) we need to do something about it as a top priority.

Biden must rise above the media echo chambers and help convince Americans—all Americans—that climate change is a real and present danger.

Fortunately—or not-so-fortunately, we suppose—it will become easier and easier to convince the public of the realities of climate change. 2020 has seen a record 30 named tropical storms in the Atlantic, and as we write this, a rare, mid-November hurricane is devastating Nicaragua. 2020 also saw record wildfires in California and Colorado—topping record years in 2018.  

As part of the Biden response to climate change, the U.S. should re-join the Paris Climate Accord on day one of the presidency.

1964 fair housing protest b&w

Civil rights advocates protested in the 1960s for fair housing laws. These laws were put in place, but they are now under threat.

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archive. License: CC BY 2.0.

6. Focus on climate and carbon

Assemble a panel of scientists through the National Academy of Sciences to establish accurate, clear metrics for the carbon intensity of all fuels, power production, agricultural products, and construction materials. We can’t manage what we don’t measure, as the saying goes. If capping—and then reducing—greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a priority, as it needs to be, we simply must have clear metrics on carbon intensity.

Establish a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission to come up with recommendations on how to use the power of market economics to achieve significant and rapid GHG emission reductions. This commission should include economists from past administrations who have recognized the power of market-based strategies for reducing GHG emissions.

The good news about market-based solutions to carbon reductions is that this approach can be highly attractive to free-market Republicans and Libertarians. Many of the best ideas about carbon reductions—like the Carbon Dividend proposal—have come from Republicans. Don’t call it a carbon tax; call it a carbon dividend. Keep it revenue-neutral to address some of the concerns from the no-new-tax Grover Norquist followers, and seek bipartisan support. The Citizen’s Climate Lobby, a non-partisan organization working to advance climate change solutions, offers some great direction for moving forward.

Point out that even companies like Exxon-Mobil—certainly not a mouthpiece of the liberal left—have accepted the wisdom of carbon taxes; these companies should be brought back to the table through this blue-ribbon commission.

Look to the Buy Clean California program as a model for federal actions to encourage low-embodied-carbon construction materials through the procurement process. 

As part of the focus on climate, consider re-branding or even re-naming the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to more explicitly address climate, or create a new cabinet-level agency to address climate change and oversee initiatives across the federal government that touch on climate change and resilience regulations.

7. Advance resilience

It is clear that even if the world—miraculously—succeeded in turning off the carbon spigot that is warming our planet, the climate will continue warming for decades, storms will keep getting stronger, drought and wildfires will remain huge problems, and glaciers will keep melting and raising sea levels.

Even as we double down on efforts to mitigate climate change, we have to face the reality that if we are to keep safe and protect our buildings and infrastructure, we need to be planning for the disruptions that will be caused by climate change. Such resilience measures also help protect us from other non-climate-related disturbances, such as earthquakes, aging utility infrastructure, and terrorist actions.

A significant subset of resilience measures also contribute to sustainability:

  • Passive survivability refers to the design of buildings that will maintain habitable conditions in the event of extended power outages or interruptions in heating fuel. To achieve passive survivability, we need highly insulated buildings with such features as passive solar design, daylighting, and natural ventilation; these are all measures that help to minimize a building’s energy consumption and carbon footprint.
  • Compact, pedestrian-friendly development patterns help protect us from the impacts of gasoline shortages, but also help reduce automobile use and, thus, carbon emissions.

Consider creating a new national service program—perhaps calling it the Resilient America Service Corps—to address the significant labor force that is needed to deal with the wide-ranging challenges we face with climate change and the pandemic:

  • restoring the coastal ecosystem (to protect coastal communities from storm surge with rising sea levels)
  • controlling invasive species to protect ecosystems
  • weatherizing and deep-energy retrofitting homes and apartments
  • creating and staffing community gardens to boost the production of locally grown food
  • creating protective berms and other landscape elements to keep our communities safer
  • creating and staffing resilience hubs to provide critical support services during natural disasters (including phone-charging and potable water distribution)
  • COVID-19 contract tracing and transporting residents to vaccination sites
  • producing and distributing personal protection equipment (PPE)

The Resilient America Service Corps should start out as a voluntary program, with participation incentivized through forgiven student loans, free community college education, and medical insurance. Eventually, such a program could become one of a number of mandatory national service programs—with Americans coming out of high school or college able to choose among various options, including military service, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Resilient America Service Corps.

arctic national wildlife refuge

Under President Trump, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is under threat from oil drilling. Under Biden, fossil fuel extraction should be limited on public lands.

Photo: Jan Reurink. License: CC BY 2.0.
Very significantly, resilience is not a partisan issue. It appeals to Red states as well as Blue states. It has not been vilified the way “sustainability” has. This can be an angle to advance many aspects of the Green New Deal and Biden’s version of that initiative.

8. Hasten the transition away from fossil fuels

Given the political realities, the Biden administration won’t succeed with a wholesale phaseout of fossil fuel use—as many of us in the environmental community would like.

Rather, the administration should pursue a collection of wide-ranging initiatives that will alter the playing field to reduce the competitive advantages that fossil fuels still enjoy. Here are some examples of how this can be accomplished:

  • Remove subsidies on fossil fuel extraction and processing.
  • Increase regulatory hurdles for fossil fuel infrastructure and power plants. Increased detection and capture of fugitive methane, for example, must be a top priority (and with new satellite-based detection technology, this should be relatively easy to implement).
  • Ban or limit fossil fuel extraction on public land.
  • Increase royalty fees on fossil fuel production on public land, and use those funds to subsidize alternatives to fossil fuels.
  • Require fossil fuel companies to pay bonding fees to cover the costs of decommissioning of extraction wells and the environmental clean-up of those sites. This would prevent the disastrous situation in which millions of abandoned natural gas wells are continuing to spew methane (a highly potent GHG) into the atmosphere long after those wells cease to be productive.
  • Encourage and incentivize efforts by building owners and developers to avoid fossil fuel use—for example, through green building rating systems that award points for avoidance of fossil fuels.
  • Continue incentives, including subsidies, for renewable energy use, but turn those into performance-based, rather than cost-based incentives. In other words, rather than paying renewable energy producers for the cost of those systems (e.g., solar tax credits that are based on the installation cost), pay them for the production of the systems.
  • Appoint a new chairperson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and nominate new commissioners. (Currently, FERC has two Republican members and one Democrat, with two open seats.) That would enable FERC to a) accommodate carbon pricing in wholesale electricity markets, b) boost interconnection infrastructure, and c) bring greater scrutiny to gas pipelines. 
  • Restore the more rigorous fuel economy standards for automobiles that will speed the transition to electric vehicles, and reverse the Trump administration action that eliminated the waiver for California to set its own vehicle emission standards.
  • Significantly expand the installation of EV charging facilities nationwide.
  • Create incentive programs to take older, inefficient vehicles out of circulation. If wisely implemented, this measure could preferentially benefit lower-income Americans who are least able to afford energy-efficient or electrically powered new cars.

9. Increase R&D funding for renewable energy, energy storage, and grid modernization

The U.S. was long a leader in the renewable energy and energy-efficiency fields, and we can be again. U.S. research laboratories invented LED lighting, low-emissivity coatings for windows, photovoltaic (PV) modules, fuel cells, and a wide range of materials used in creating highly energy-efficient buildings.

There remain significant gains to be made in renewable energy technologies and energy storage—and federal funding will be needed to return the U.S. to a leadership role. Energy storage, including both battery storage of electricity and thermal storage, is a top research priority.

The U.S. electricity grid is in urgent need of modernization and reinvention. Fire hazard and vulnerability of storm damage are key priorities, as is a grid that works much better with distributed power generation from renewables. The utility grid of the future will need to incorporate energy storage to allow the management of intermittent generation sources like wind and solar.

We are fortunate to have superb national laboratories focused on energy, the world’s top research universities, and private laboratories. An infusion of federal research dollars into these laboratories can be used very effectively.

10. Make it a top priority to improve the energy performance of buildings, especially existing buildings

Buildings represent nearly 40% of total energy consumption in the U.S. Huge progress has been made in reducing energy consumption in new buildings, and net-zero-energy performance is an increasingly common target—and even a requirement in some building codes. This progress needs to continue. Federal initiatives to address passive survivability (see #5, above) can be a significant impetus to strengthen building codes to achieve net-zero-energy performance.

installation of an exterior storm window on a home

Installers apply exterior storm windows. The prime windows which are double-glazed, low-e, argon windows, result in triple-glazing with two low-e coatings. This can be a good strategy for deep-energy retrofits.

Photo: Alex Wilson
But improving new buildings will only go so far. Our existing building stock—the nation’s 80 million single-family homes, 20 million apartment units, and 5.6 million commercial buildings—remain where the biggest gains need to be made with energy savings and carbon emission reductions. An estimated two-thirds of the buildings existing today will still be occupied in 2050, according to Architecture 2030, by which time we need to have turned the corner on climate change.

How to retrofit those existing buildings with energy-efficiency improvements and solar energy systems—and how to pay for it—remains the big question. Solutions for houses have to go beyond weatherization to involve deep energy retrofits (improvements to achieve a 75% to 80% reduction in energy use). Such retrofits are currently really hard to carry out, and—if poorly executed—damage to the buildings can occur.

Buildings also have a key role to play in managing energy loads, with demand response and storage technologies, and as access ports for all the batteries-on-wheels that people are increasingly using to commute. As we retrofit buildings, we have to also turn them into active nodes in a responsive electrical grid.

To address these challenges, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America Program should be dramatically ramped up and given a rebuilding America focus. Manufacturers need to develop new modular systems and products to simplify deep energy retrofits and bring the price down. Innovative financing programs and incentives have to be developed to make such projects economically viable. Strong partners, such as utility companies and banks, need to be brought to the table. DOE should lead this effort and work with other agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to implement such initiatives.

Final Thoughts

Many in the U.S.—of all political persuasions—are still reeling from an intense election year. The election battles were hard fought and emotionally draining. Anger is running high. As of this writing, the outgoing administration, which lost the election by the same Electoral College margin that it had called a landslide four years earlier, has not even conceded the race.

Yet change is underway. The Biden-Harris cabinet is being figured out. Candidates for key staff positions are being named. And there is a sense of renewed optimism throughout much of the country and around the world.

Perhaps the most important, overriding priority for the incoming administration is to figure out how to lead all of the country—not just the voters who put them in office. That will be hard, especially with such polarized news media steeped more in opinion than in fact-based journalism.

But we are optimistic that a new day is dawning and that America can reclaim its position on the world stage as a leader in environmental protection and solutions to the climate crisis we face.

 

Published December 7, 2020

Wilson, A., & Melton, P. (2020, November 24). The Next Four Years. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/next-four-years

Comments

December 8, 2020 - 8:22 pm

Number #10 still is the hands of the Architects, it starts there and then designers, and then builders...I always thought, and many agreed that Architects, and those that teach college level classes start this whole evolution of the built environment. Start there educating the educators...!

December 17, 2020 - 7:37 pm

Great article, but missing the consumption and waste piece. Global resource extraction is responsible for 53% of climate change impacts and 90% of global biodiversity loss and water stress (UNEP Global Resources Outlook 2019). We drastically need to reduce consumption and waste, especially of food, construction materials and single use packaging! There are also huge environmental justice issues about waste, and it has a lot of bi-partisan support. But it is often forgotten about, partly as most of the impacts are elsewhere and not counted or seen in the US. Federal policies on extended producer responsibilities, stimulating the circular economy and developing programs like weatherization but to help buildings implement waste tracking, reduction and diversion are key. Fossil Fuel companies are now fracking gas to make plastics from cracker plants and the US will be flooded with more plastic than it can deal with. Systems of reuse, from packaging and food serviceware to consumer goods, need to be incentivized and designed into buildings and cities.