The US and the world face a near-crisis that needs American leadership at home and overseas. Climate change is one of the causes that make things worse. But while the Trump government is utterly failing at the task because of incompetence, indifference, corruption, or all three, America’s state and local authorities are rising to the challenge and demonstrating what the future direction should look like.
Just as this has been true in reply to the COVID-19 pandemic, so does this apply when comparing state and federal leadership in facing the climate crisis.
Under the Trump administration, US national climate policy is moving in precisely the wrong direction. Led by corporate and fossil fuel interests that are filled by one of his Cabinet and leading donors, President Donald Trump has been weakening protections against air pollution, causing immediate harm to clean energy jobs and businesses, abandoning the Paris climate agreement, and placing the profits of fossil fuel companies over the health of people and the planet.
Meanwhile, state governments across America are taking significant action against climate change and developing a clean energy economy. Local authorities and tribal nations are leading too. This leadership is vital in real terms: Reducing carbon pollution that’s harming American communities–especially communities of color and low-income communities. This leadership is also critical for showing the world that many Americans remain committed to climate options, and it’s demonstrating that fearless climate action is popular and possible.
This leadership is also supporting to growth of the clean energy industries that are a few of America’s fastest-growing financial sectors. These businesses employ approximately 3.3 million American workers and boast some of the country’s fastest-growing careers. Clean energy projects outnumber those in fossil fuel industries by 3-to-1, even though these businesses are also hit hard by the present economic crisis by the COVID-19 pandemic and the failed federal response.
Actually, amid the financial fallout regarding the pandemic, national lawmakers’ failure to adequately support local and state authorities could threaten the continuing advancement that these actors are making to combat the climate calamity. Some local and state lawmakers have already been made to delay crucial clean energy investments and policy activities. Many could be made to confront significant budget shortfalls and triage important initiatives. Greater federal support to state and local authorities will be crucial to sustaining critical services and driving climate and economic progress.
State Climate Management Is Paving The Way For Demanding National Climate Action
While state and local advancement are essential in preventing the worst effects of climate change, national leadership is also crucial. Last year, greenhouse gas pollution broke the records, and the worldwide scientific community has made clear that unusual activity during the next decade is imperative to avoid catastrophe.
Nonetheless, there are significant lessons that a prospective US president and Congress should derive from state progress throughout the country, in addition to that of local authorities and tribal nations, as they start to craft a transformative federal agenda. Such a plan should be determined by investing in good jobs, building a sustainable economy, creating criteria for successful and sustained pollution reductions at the local and national levels, committing to equity and justice, and finishing the federal contributions that prop up fossil fuel corporations their pollution.
Recent State Progress Toward A 100% Clean Energy Market
State climate action is speeding up as more states are taking increasingly demanding actions around the nation. Currently, 15 territories and states have taken legislative or executive measures to move toward a 100 percent clean energy future.
Including 10 countries and Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, have passed orders to implement economywide greenhouse gas pollution-reduction programs and 100% clean electricity policies. And most of these state activities have occurred during the Trump presidency, with many following the election of climate-leading state legislators and governors in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Through those coalitions, leaders have participated in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change convenings and advanced international partnerships, like those fighting against ocean acidification and coal plant pollution. California has been at the vanguard of participating in bilateral climate partnerships with nations worldwide, including China and India. All told, these initiatives have given some measured reinforcement into the worldwide community that the United States might soon rejoin in full the international effort to face this crisis.
A Legacy Of State Clean Energy Leadership
While state clean energy leadership has thrived in recent years, the leadership’s heritage extends back decades. Iowa was the leading state to enact an RPS (renewable portfolio standard) when Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) passed the 1983 Alternative Energy Production law. That set off a popular movement leading to RPS policies enacted in 28 states and Washington, DC. In Colorado in 2004, 54% of voters approved Amendment 37–the first RPS in the nation to be determined at the ballot rather than passed by a state legislature.
The history of state climate leadership has had a direct impact on federal policy: Since the 1970s, California has established vehicle emissions and tailpipe pollution rules that are stricter than those of the national government, and 13 other states have embraced that nation’s standard–with much more hoping to join this year, despite concentrated action from the Trump government to specifically suppress this advancement.
Additionally, starting in 1999, 12 states sued the federal government, and eventually, they won the landmark 2007 US Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, which held that carbon pollution is an air pollutant subject to regulation as per the federal Clean Air Act. That judgment, catalyzed by state direction, enables future national administrations to use that demonstrated law to decrease greenhouse gas pollution throughout the economy.
Progress In Each Key Financial Sector
States have shown leadership against the climate crisis by targeting the economy’s individual sectors with criteria and strategies toward a 100 percent clean energy future.
The electricity industry is responsible for almost 30 percent of US greenhouse gas pollution. And while fossil fuels are already a decreasing share of power generation, this industry must quickly decarbonize, making a complete switch to clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.
Altogether, 15 territories and states have taken legislative or executive actions to move toward 100 percent clean energy. Ten states, plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, have set those clean energy standards–or 100 percent goals with strong interim criteria –into law.
Under Governor Tony Evers (D), others, such as Wisconsin, have dedicated to 100% clean energy by executive order. Due to leadership by local and state authorities, 1 in 3 Americans currently resides in a country or city dedicated to 100 percent clean power. These subnational activities can also be complemented by pledges from 12 large utilities, over 160 cities, and at least 150 companies to attain 100 percent clean power or net-zero emissions.
State and local governments also have used complementary policies to promote clean electricity and related economic growth. These include aggregate net-metering and tax incentives applications for distributed renewable energy adopted in 17 states. Another example is the introduction of green banks, which, starting in Connecticut, have across the nation spent more than $3.6 billion in clean energy projects. These projects are usually aligned with other social objectives, like spurring job creation, encouraging energy equity, and improving local air quality.
Green banks have leveraged over three times the private investment quantity for every $1 of public investment. Other states and local authorities have implemented clean energy reserves, infrastructure funding authority, and revolving loan funds. Nebraska’s Dollar and Energy Saving loan and Texas’ Loan Star plans were the first in the nation to use innovative public funding to deploy energy efficiency projects.
Combustion of diesel, gas, and other fossil fuels in the transport sector accounts for one-third of national greenhouse gas pollution, including the biggest and growing sectoral share of US emissions. Transitioning this business toward 100 percent clean and emissions-free operations will call for federal action on vehicle electrification, smart growth, expansion of public transit, affordable housing, cleaner fuels, and much more.
But state action on climate-smart transport policy is a growing trend: 43 states and Washington, DC, took action associated with EVs and charging infrastructure through 2019 alone. These state policy efforts, usually supported by cities and utilities, provide starting points for national policy.
They include implementation of a zero-emission vehicle standard, driven by California and joined by 12 other states, obligating automakers to sell specific percentages of zero-emission automobiles; invest in charging infrastructure; reform power prices to support EVs, fast charging, and electric trucks and buses; improve EV purchase incentives; and secure EVs for public vehicle fleets.
Residential and industrial buildings consume about 38 percent of the USA’s energy and produce 10 percent of national greenhouse gas pollution. Electrifying buildings and raising energy efficiency–and promoting through better building codes–can dramatically lessen this sector’s contribution to climate change. California’s building codes provide a first-of-its-kind road map for decarbonization of the construction industry.
The nation has goals for a new residential building to be net-zero energy after 2020 and new commercial buildings by 2030. In 2019, Maine passed orders to increase annual electric heat pump installations–exceptionally efficient home heating and cooling systems–from 7,500 to 20,000 each year. In 2019, Washington state enacted legislation investing almost $80 million in energy retrofits and implementing the nation’s first energy standard for existing commercial buildings.
Relatedly, climate change can be a threat multiplier for America’s affordable housing crisis. Forward-looking states, such as California, are designing climate-smart construction criteria in a manner that upholds equity and contains anti-displacement coverage: California’s Healthy Homes Act, AB-1232, builds and improves anti-displacement protections for state power efficiency plans serving low-income clients; prevents rent hikes by landlords who try to gain from energy upgrades, and directs agencies in data collection to assure enforceability and better penetrate the unregulated affordable housing industry.
Industrial activities contribute more than one-fifth of US greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, efforts to limit industrial emissions are a vital opportunity to build a robust clean energy production industry, with tremendous potential to support American manufacturing jobs and increase global competitiveness.
And though the federal government has done a bit to encourage these changes or use low-carbon manufacturing technologies at scale, states have contributed to these attempts. In 2017, California became the first state to institute a so-called buy clean standard, requiring government agencies to consider providers’ greenhouse gas emissions when buying materials, such as glass and steel, for infrastructure projects.
Buy Clean California is strongly supported by business and industry leaders, labor unions, and environmental organizations, which know that such a standard can help American jobs in domestic manufacturing industries dedicated to continuous improvement in their ecological effect. Numerous other states–such as Washington state, Oregon, and Minnesota–are implementing or are contemplating their own Buy clean pilot projects and policies.
Following the Obama administration, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laws were set to reduce industrial division hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions present in compounds used for air conditioning and refrigeration.
These regulations kept the US on track to satisfy the Kigali amendment to the international Montreal Protocol, which was crafted to face this climate super pollutant, which could trap tens of thousands of times more heat per ton released into the air than 1 ton of carbon dioxide. But these rules were struck down by the US Court of Appeals in 2017.
The Trump government has declined to discover a path forward on HFC reductions –yet they will benefit the future safety of American cold storage manufacturers, which are leading rivals in the world economy. In the absence of federal action, major nations are working to fill the gap:
All US Climate Alliance countries have committed to reducing short-lived climate pollutants, such as HFCs, from industrial clinics. As of 2019, eight countries have taken action to curtail specific HFC applications: Vermont, California, and Washington state have passed legislation to adopt HFC limitations based on the former EPA rules, and Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York have dedicated to similar regulatory actions.
Agriculture and Lands
In the United States, lands and coastal regions sequester on the net approximately 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, about one-tenth of total emissions. Of the 1 gigaton of further yearly sequestration, the National Academy of Sciences says it is possible, 50% comes from forestry and better management of agricultural soils. The 26 US Climate Alliance territories and states have joined around shared priorities in climate policy for working lands and agriculture, including raising natural carbon sequestration. Other states are taking action, too.
In 2017, Maryland issued legislation creating a Healthy Soils program. With this program, the state provides farmers with education, technical assistance, and financial incentives to implement farm management practices that lead to healthy soils for biodiversity and soil sequestration.
For farmers who adopt cover crop methods, Iowa offers discounted crop insurance and cost-sharing, and Nebraska provides financial incentives. Hawaii established a Greenhouse Gas Sequestration Task Force in 2018 to identify ways to store carbon in its own farms and natural areas such as woods.
And the state is currently offering grants, technical support, tax credits, and other incentives to produce and distribute more compost and generally make healthier lands. New Mexico’s Healthy Soil Act gives farmers and ranchers grants to plant native grasses or cover crops, change to no-till practices, use compost, restore wetlands, and explicitly help increase the soil’s organic matter and carbon material.
Communities of color and economically weak groups have been disproportionately impacted by climate change and pollution. This is mainly why the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform was launched this past year, to advance the aims of economic, racial, climate, and ecological justice.
The co-authors of the platform state: “Systemic injustice and racism have left tribal communities, economically weak communities, and communities of color exposed to the greatest levels of toxic pollution, in addition to the most vulnerable individuals subject to stronger storms and floods, extreme heat waves, devastating droughts, deadly wildfires, and other perils from the climate crisis.”
About 250 environmental justice and national environmental organizations have signed on, calling for bold and equitable state and federal climate policies which improve air quality; gain access to affordable and renewable electricity, water, and transportation for each community; encourage a rapid transition toward a comprehensive, just, and pollution-free energy business; and create safe and healthy infrastructure and communities.
High-Quality Economic Transition And Union Jobs
Many states are taking steps to high-quality job creation and retention, center workers, and workforce transition into their own climate and clean energy policy plans. While no state program goes far enough, these programs offer initial ideas for how national lawmakers can do the same. Clean energy companies already employ more than 3 million Americans.
However, lawmakers at all levels can and should do more to ensure clean energy jobs are high quality with family-supporting salaries and benefits and to safeguard economic safety for workers and communities transitioning off fossil fuels.
The Solidarity for Climate Action platform, by way of instance, calls for “creating and keeping countless high-quality tasks while putting forward bold solutions to climate change.” It highlights that improving the availability and density of union jobs in the clean energy sector will empower employees, create quality jobs, and sustain households.
In supporting the creation and accessibility of high-quality union jobs, Washington’s 100 percent clean energy legislation gives a tiered tax exemptions system supporting clean energy projects that meet specific workforce requirements. These include projects developed under community workforce or project labor agreements, with workers’ reimbursement at prevailing wages determined by collective bargaining, or with woman-, minority- or veteran-owned companies.
Climate change is an urgent situation for government to deal with the crisis demands the next president to set bold climate action at the top of the nation’s agenda. And as Congress set out to execute that vision, they could begin by learning from local and state leadership. Fortunately, present and future national lawmakers are heeding the lessons of leadership.
This was evident by the sharp climate plans set forward during the previous year and by bills introduced during the 116th Congress, showing the influence of nations’ climate direction. These efforts have focused on investment in good jobs, building a clean energy future, producing standards and approaches targeting greenhouse gas pollution industry by industry, and committing to ecological and economic justice.