Can Cities and States Step Up to Fight Climate Change?

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

California Governor Jerry Brown, surrounded by lawmakers, speaks of the passage of a pair of climate change measures on July 17, 2017, in Sacramento.

In mid-July, California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg teamed up to announce America’s Pledge, a new coalition of seven states and more than 200 cities and counties that have joined together to continue to support the Paris climate agreement’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

In the weeks since President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from Paris, cities and states have scrambled to come up with initiatives that can actually close the gap left by U.S. withdrawal. But while local governments have made impressive pledges in recent weeks to mitigate the damage caused by abandoning U.S. commitments at Paris, what those plans look like in practice—and how they can slow the increase in the greenhouse gases that are fueling climate change—remains an open question.

America’s Pledge plans to study these commitments and present the findings at the November global climate summit in Bonn, Germany. “We’re sending a clear message to the world that America’s states, cities and businesses are moving forward with our country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement—with or without Washington,” Brown told The New York Times.

In the months leading up to the landmark Paris Agreement, hundreds of cities around the world pledged to slash their carbon emissions over the coming decades. These cities aimed to close the gap between commitments by national governments and measures needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

But although ambitious, many of these city-level plans were vague and difficult to measure. Prior to the Paris conference, Angel Hsu, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and her colleagues examined these commitments in detail and found that only a small fraction contained specific emissions targets or mitigation plans. Also in 2015, a similar analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that “targets are often arbitrary and aspirational, neither reflecting mitigation potential nor implementation.”

“Pledging is just the first step: signing up, coming to the table,” says Hsu. “It all comes down to what kind of information we have about what is actually being delivered. We really need to have greater transparency.”

With the United States now falling through on its mitigation targets, cities and states have thrust themselves front and center in the global response to climate change, yet there’s little indication that these new plans can match the impact of coordinated national goals. According to a recent report by Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit research organization, of the 325 U.S. cities that have committed to reducing their emissions, just 132 have specific targets in place. Cities and states have pledged to cut their emissions by all sorts of metrics and formulas, and by certain dates—with little coordination between cities and states on these diverse strategies.

One significant obstacle to greater coordination stems from differences in how cities and states measure both their carbon footprint and their progress in reducing it. While many cities and states choose to count only emissions generated within their borders, others like San Francisco opt to include emissions generated by other economic activities city residents rely on, like manufacturing consumer goods overseas.

Those differences in scope dramatically alter how local governments see the problem and the tools they need to address it: Emissions generated from fuel-processing or manufacturing overseas may provide a better picture of a locale’s place in the global economy—but it also leaves local officials with fewer mitigation tools.

A related problem is the risk that emissions cuts in different jurisdictions will overlap and get counted more than once. In California, for instance, it is unclear how to tease out San Francisco’s climate action goals from the statewide ones. Equally unclear is whether California’s Under2 MOU deal with China would supplant the 2016 U.S. bilateral commitment with Beijing to reduce emissions. “Absolutely there will be some overlap between these sources,” says Hsu. “At the international level, it’s actually shocking how little dialogue there is between governments and business leaders. Everyone wants to get credit.”

A more complex question involves counting corporate pledges. Under the America’s Pledge framework, more than 200 major corporations have committed to the Paris Agreement. But separating those goals from the targets established by cities and states where a company operates presents a number of challenges.

It’s thorny questions like these that America’s Pledge vows to address. The coalition has teamed up with the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Washington-based World Resources Institute, a global research nonprofit, to standardize local and state carbon-footprint measurements and mitigation plans. (The coalition aims to complete this analysis before the Bonn global climate summit—though some experts predict the analysis will take much longer to complete.)

But what America’s Pledge cannot do is replace the federal government’s role in coordinating and enforcing these state and local commitments. Absent a federal mandate like the Clean Power Plan, cities and states differ widely on how they propose to implement and enforce their pledges. Colorado’s pledge to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2020, while ambitious, relies on industries “voluntarily” cutting back, which some environmental advocates say may be unrealistic.

At the municipal level, pledges tend to have even fewer teeth. While New York City has one of the most comprehensive set of city-level targets in the country, there’s no long-term enforcement guarantee. “Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, but if there’s a change in leadership, the next administration could simply pull out,” says Hsu. “These timelines are set politically—not according to science to avert catastrophic climate change.”

Even where legal protections are stronger, adequate enforcement remains uncertain. Last year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) had a statutory obligation to implement a carbon reduction plan passed in 2008—one of the nation’s most sweeping. Yet since then, federal budget cutbacks have dramatically reduced the state’s ability to live up to that mandate. A third of the MassDEP budget relies on federal funding, so steep EPA cuts will directly impact the state’s ability to follow through on its climate plan.

This is not a unique problem: The Rocky Mountain Institute found that many cities and states designed their carbon reduction plans at a time when the federal government offered more support. Trump’s most recent budget, for instance, calls for slashing grants for state-level enforcement by 45 percent (along with a 40 percent cut in federal enforcement).

Trump’s plan would also eliminate the $70 billion Climate Protection Program, a grant program that includes everything from Energy Star to SmartWay, which helps companies adopt more climate-friendly policies. The Rocky Mountain Institute notes that such quickly changing federal policies could hamper progress toward meeting city and state targets.

Moreover, axing the Clean Power Plan, the heart of the U.S. climate commitment, would leave states without a clear framework for measuring and cutting their emissions. And without federal direction, state action is much more difficult. “Not having the coordinating force of the U.S. government is a major blow,” says Hsu.

But the most pressing issue is whether localities can actually live up to the U.S. pledge to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025. The push looks like an uphill battle. According to a recent study by Climate Interactive, a nonprofit research group headquartered in Washington, participating cities and states account for 51 percent of the U.S. population, but just 36 percent of emissions nationwide. If cities and states actually enforce their pledges, they could meet between 20 percent and 36 percent of the U.S. commitment.

The effort to standardize and catalogue local commitments through America’s Pledge is an important milestone. But more cities and states must sign up if the U.S. can ever hope to step into the breach left by the U.S. exit from the Paris climate accord. Nevertheless, the rapid response of local leaders across the country has encouraged climate scientists and activists: “In less than two weeks, decision makers representing about half of the U.S. population aligned themselves with climate protection and the transition to a low-carbon economy,” Climate Interactive researchers concluded. “Momentum is possible.”

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