So how much will really change under President Obama?

Guest column by Dr Alan C Lloyd, president of The International Council on Clean Transportation, USA

The election of an American president with a much stronger environmental agenda has increased the likelihood that more favourable climate policies will come from the USA in the next four years.

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[mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]In his first 100 days, President Obama has already implemented some of his progressive environmental campaign promises, such as an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider California's request to be allowed to set higher emission standards for passenger vehicles than for the rest of the country, as well as establishing new Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards at federal level. Other aspects of the president’s environmental agenda are contained in his economic stimulus plan to create jobs for a green economy and his budget which includes projected revenues from a yet-to-be-adopted nationwide cap and trade program.

The early signs are that Obama and the new administration will push strongly on the environment in absolute terms, and not to just try to be better than the Bush era (which set a very low bar).

He seems to be standing up to the crippled domestic auto industry by tying bail-out financial aid to production of more fuel-efficient cars.

It is too early to say how the administration and Congress will respond to the increasing attacks from the coal and energy and fuels industry who are expressing concern about higher energy costs during the recession, but so far they are standing firm.

As well as the new president, last year's Congressional elections brought a change in party leadership in both houses which could be significant.

Within the House of Representatives, the Californian Democrat Henry Waxman, who has an excellent record of environmental leadership, has replaced John Dingell as chairman of the powerful Committee on Energy and Commerce. Dingell is a close ally of the automobile industry and has used his position to block progressive legislation for several decades. Waxman recently introduced an aggressive plan to cap greenhouse gases.

In the Senate, Barbara Boxer now chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, and the Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to control the legislative agenda. Both are Democrats from California and are strong on the environment.

California continues to set an aggressive agenda for greenhouse gas reductions, but much depends on whether the EPA will remove the block on the state's regulation to limit emissions from passenger vehicles for 2009-16 – it was the first US regulation of its type, but President Bush blocked it in 2004, denying a 'waiver' for the first time in 40 years.

If the regulation can get the green light and other remaining legal challenges are resolved, California wants to develop a programme for a second phase, covering the years 2017-25. The EPA is working closely with California and the other states to design a comprehensive US-wide programme for the period from 2012 onwards.

Another significant change is that the Obama administration has indicated a willingness to address emissions from commercial aviation and international marine. It is too early to know how strong this willingness really is, but Congress has indicated it wants the EPA to set greenhouse gas standards in the aviation sector, possibly by 2012.

Similar sentiments have been expressed for controlling emissions from marine operations.

The jury is still out on how much will change in the next four years, but the changes so far are good news for those in Europe who want to see America play a more constructive and engaged role in developing international climate change policy.