As the Copenhagen climate summit gets underway, the United States is being widely criticized for failing to commit to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But with little fanfare, many U.S. states — the largest of which have economies bigger than most nations, and carbon footprints to match — have been quietly making serious commitments to slash emissions. These robust state climate policies have created an odd circumstance in which the United States as a whole comes to the negotiating table offering less than the sum of its individual parts.
“Taken together the actions initiated by the states, coupled with the clean energy policies and programs implemented thus far by the Obama administration, rival the scope and ambition of the actions taken to address global warming anywhere in the world,” says a report released last week by Environment America, a coalition of state environmental advocacy organizations.
Since more than half of the U.S.’s 50 states are actively on the path to reducing emissions on their own, state climate action is no small thing on a global scale. California, America’s bellwether environmental state, has the world’s eighth-largest economy, just behind that of Italy. California’s energy use is among the most efficient in the nation; its leadership on improving automobile fuel efficiency forced Detroit to significantly boost gasoline mileage of U.S. vehicles; and its comprehensive climate law — AB32 — is as aggressive as any in the world.
Texas is another huge state economy, and though hardly as progressive as California, it has installed wind energy capacity that ranks sixth among all
State action sheds a more hopeful light on what the U.S. can achieve.nations in the world, behind Germany, the rest of the U.S., Spain, China, and India. Ten northeastern and mid-Atlantic states have formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and together comprise the seventh-largest economy in the world. RGGI now operates a cap-and-trade system in the U.S. that is committed to reducing emissions from its power sector 10 percent by 2018.
These and other signs of progress are easy to overlook as the U.S. negotiating delegation begins work in Copenhagen, able to offer only a weak near-term emissions reduction target: 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Though the double-digit target seems impressive, it translates into a mere four percent reduction below 1990 levels. The European Union has committed to a 20 percent reduction below the more difficult 1990 benchmark, and it has offered to commit to a 30 percent reduction if the U.S. and other developed nations agree to make the same commitment.
President Obama, however, is in a tough spot. He cannot outpace a reluctant U.S. Congress. Still, when he speaks in Copenhagen at the end of the negotiating session, highlighting the many climate efforts now underway on the state and regional level in the U.S. would provide evidence that the country is beginning to make good progress on emissions reductions. International impatience with the U.S. will not suddenly evaporate, but evidence of state action sheds a more hopeful light on what the U.S. can still achieve.
Environment America’s report, America on the Move, analyzed state climate action and found that, taken as a whole, it will reduce CO2 emissions by 536 million metric tons per year by 2020. That’s equivalent to about 7 percent of total U.S. emissions in 2007 — almost half the distance to the 2020 reduction of 17 percent below 2005 levels Congress is contemplating.
In other words, the states have already moved the ball nearly halfway downfield while the federal government has largely remained a spectator until this year. Perhaps this will help spur Congress to support the more ambitious goals that the rest of world is demanding from the planet’s leading historical polluter.
Half of the reductions the report quantifies will come from caps on emissions that states are imposing on themselves. Leading the pack are six states — which together are responsible for a quarter of the nation’s economic output — that have adopted legally enforceable caps on greenhouse gas pollution: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Jersey.
The rest of the reductions will come from renewable energy standards already adopted by 29 states, energy efficiency mandates adopted in 22 states, state and federal standards for appliances and cleaner cars, updated building energy efficiency codes, as well as other measures that are part of two dozen comprehensive state climate plans adopted since 2003.
None of the state governments could have taken action without making a strong case for the link between green energy initiatives and economic
States have adopted hundreds of climate action policies in their search for innovative solutionsgrowth. Indeed, the best evidence indicates that governments are creating jobs and growing their economies by harnessing the engine of climate action. States have adopted hundreds of policies and measures in their search for innovative solutions. A Policy Tracker available on the New America Foundation’s Web site provides state-by-state detail.
Twenty-four policies and measures account for 85 percent of the states’ emissions reduction potential, touching every sector of the economy. The majority of the policies save money or expand the economy; the remainder either cost money or require investment, but overall they create new economic opportunity.
“Every macroeconomic analysis of state climate action that we have done has shown an expansionary effect,” Tom Peterson, the CEO of the Center for Climate Strategies (CCS), told us. “It should not be a big leap to figure out how to nationalize it.”
Peterson’s group has worked with governors and elected officials on both sides of the aisle in dozens of states and is completing an economic analysis of state climate action for presentation at a series of events at the Copenhagen meetings. CCS used a model known as REMI — a peer-reviewed software package commonly used by states to forecast the impacts of changes in tax rates, the exit or entry of major businesses, and the impacts of energy and environmental policy actions.
What if the 24 leading policies were adopted by all 50 U.S. states? CCS projects that the measures would create two million new jobs by 2020 and lead to a $250 billion expansion of national GDP. States that have taken early action would fare much better.
For example, Michigan completed a climate plan last year under the leadership of Gov. Jennifer Granholm. If the plan is implemented, Michigan could see its beleaguered economy gain 110,000 new jobs by 2025 and see its GDP grow by $20 billion. Similarly, Florida under Republican Gov. Crist, also completed a comprehensive climate plan last year, which, if implemented, would bring 148,000 new jobs to the state and create a $38 billion expansion of GDP.
“These two dozen policies are proven and straightforward,” Peterson said. “Each is in progress to some degree already, and they could be fully implemented with state and federal cooperation.”
If adopted nationally, the 24 state measures would have a significant impact. Though he is still working on final numbers, Peterson says it looks as if the trajectory of carbon cuts would be even more positive than what
A national policy that capitalizes on years of state climate work is still needed.the Environment America report projected — a potential reduction of 16 percent to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
The CCS analysis identifies the policies and measures that provide the biggest bang for the buck. These include mandating that a certain percentage of a state’s electricity come from renewable sources, launching programs to reduce electricity demand, increasing transportation efficiency, and restoring and protecting agricultural lands and forests.
Meanwhile, state action continues to accelerate. Maryland is working to develop seven gigawatts of offshore wind power. Sparsely-populated Maine is working to develop five gigawatts, with plans to use the surplus wind-generated power to run electric vehicles. A newly energized U.S. Department of Energy is backing a plan to develop 50 gigawatts of offshore wind power in 10 states.
Michigan made headlines this year by staking a claim to becoming a center for battery manufacturing. Pennsylvania and the 10 states that belong to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are developing a low-carbon fuel standard that — together with California’s — could provide a model for the nation. Even the southeastern states, historically slow on clean energy and climate action, are taking a serious look at climate policy options under the leadership of the Southern Governors Association. Five of these states — Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina — have already developed comprehensive climate action plans.
“States have been leading the way for the last nine or 10 years in the U.S., and they intend to continue playing that role,” Vicki Arroyo, executive
More from Yale e360Its Economy in Shambles,
the Midwest Goes Green
It took awhile, but the U.S. Midwest finally has recognized that the industries that once powered its economy will never return. Now leaders in the region are looking to renewable energy manufacturing and technologies as key to the heartland’s renaissance.
Regional Climate Pact Lesson: Avoid Giveaways to Industry
As Congress struggles over a bill to limit carbon emissions, a cap-and-trade program is already operating in 10 Northeastern states. But the regional project’s mixed success offers a cautionary warning to U.S. lawmakers on how to proceed.
State governments are also prepared to work alone, according to Arroyo, since they believe the international competitiveness of their state economies is at stake. RGGI officials are meeting with officials from two other regional carbon trading efforts, making plans to link their systems if Congress fails to adopt a national cap-and-trade program. Arroyo is headed to Copenhagen, where her center is co-sponsoring an event that will feature Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, and Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington. The event’s title is telling: “Beyond Cap & Trade: Sub-National Leadership — Sooner. Stronger.”
Yet the U.S. states, disunited, can only do so much. A national policy that places a price on carbon and also capitalizes on — rather than ignores or preempts — years of state work is still needed. President Obama has an opportunity in Copenhagen to point out to the rest of the world something that has been overlooked: that the states, at least, have not been standing still for the last decade, but have been quietly showing leadership. He can also take the opportunity to goad Congress to do more by building on the strong track record of state climate action.
Editor’s Note, 15 December 2009: The original posting of this article should have noted that the Center for Climate Strategies — whose CEO, Tom Peterson, is quoted in the story — has received funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. One of the article’s co-authors, Michael Northrop, is program director for sustainable development at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.