Since President Trump took office, leadership on climate change has shifted from Washington, D.C. to city halls, state legislatures and boardrooms across the country. According to a new report from the America’s Pledge initiative, these decentralized, bottom-up efforts are already delivering results.
Real economy actors are putting climate targets within reach — without having to make sacrifices — said Carl Pope, America’s Pledge vice-chair and former executive director of the Sierra Club, speaking at a report preview event Tuesday.
“One of the things that shouldn’t surprise us in the Untied States is that the best way to speed up innovation is to have a lot of different people trying,” he said.
“That’s why a bottom-up strategy is fundamentally a much more powerful strategy than one that relies on a single federal mechanism, whether it would be a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade, or anything else,” Pope continued. “Any single federal mechanism will fail to harness the creativity and the ingenuity of American society. That’s the bet that lies behind America’s Pledge.”
The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord catalyzed action outside of the federal government, including the launch of America's Pledge by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown in July 2017.
Today, more than 3,000 states, cities and businesses have signed on to supporting the Paris goals, according to the Fulfilling America’s Pledge report. Together these entities represent more than half of the U.S. population, more than half of the American economy, and over 35 percent of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions.
But what do these climate commitments really amount to?
According to the report, released as California hosts the Global Climate Action Summit this week in San Francisco, the U.S. is already halfway toward meeting its original Paris pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 — despite the absence of federal action.
Previously announced commitments, combined with market forces, are expected to continue driving U.S. emissions down to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, or roughly two-thirds of the way to the Paris target for the U.S.
Implementing policies already on the books could lead to having 4 million new zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2025; produce annual energy savings on the order of closing 37 coal plants; and boost demand for non-hydroelectric renewable generation to 500 terawatt-hours, or enough to power 56 million homes for a year, over the next seven years.
If cities, states and businesses fully implement the 10 “readily available” climate action strategies laid out in the report, the authors estimate it could reduce emissions even further, to 21 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. If additional stakeholders get involved, the authors assert it’s within “realistic legal and political limits” to reduce U.S. emissions by more than 24 percent by 2025, which puts the nation within striking distance of the Paris pledge.
As early commitments take hold in the market — as electric vehicles phase out gas-powered ones, for instance — the report finds that surpassing the 26 percent threshold is fully achievable. That’s equivalent to eliminating all of the emissions from 100 countries, with actions by non-federal actors in the U.S. alone.
This isn’t a “pie-in-the-sky scenario,” said Paul Bodnar, managing director of sustainable finance at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
One of the report’s recommended policy actions is for states to put in place regulations or permitting programs to manage methane leaks at oil and gas facilities — a policy action the Trump administration just proposed weakening at the federal level. To assess a realistic outcome of this recommendation, the report authors modeled the emissions impact of seven states choosing to tackle the methane issue. If just four more states take similar steps, it puts the U.S. on track to meet the Paris goals.
Other policy recommendations include ratcheting up renewable energy targets, encouraging building energy retrofits, and accelerating the retirement of coal power.
“If you don’t assume it’s the federal government’s job to take care of a problem, you find an amazingly powerful set of tools,” said Bodnar. “And it’s sometimes just a matter of exposing [that] to people with the power to do something about it.”
But while the report shows that real economy actors can get most of the way to the U.S. Paris climate goal without federal intervention, these actions alone are not sufficient, according to Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board.
This is especially true in the context of Governor Jerry Brown’s new executive order, which calls for California to achieve carbon neutrality economy-wide by 2045, she said.
“We need the federal government to engage specifically on lands, on federal natural resource policies, federal ocean policies…not to mention some of the major transportation emissions like airplanes and ships,” said Nichols. “We’re certainly not saying we can do this all without the federal government or that we don’t want the federal government to engage.”
“What were saying is: It’s amazing how much we can do with a not-unrealistic effort on the part of those who are still in.”