When the United States formally withdraws from the 2015 Paris Agreement in less than a year, nearly half of states — or at least their governors — will remain committed to meeting the goals of the global compact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
Collectively, the 24 states that have formed the U.S. Climate Alliance are nearly on pace to reach the emissions targets set forth in the agreement, and governors say their progress in the absence of federal leadership is a success story.
But even where states have succeeded in shrinking their carbon footprint, they’ve been hampered by the Trump administration’s rollbacks to regulations on power plants and vehicle emissions. And scant progress in the remaining 26 states, which produce more than half of the country’s emissions, shows the limits of state action in meeting the national milestones that scientists say are essential.
“The challenge has been that for each step that they take forward, the administration continues to unwind our national climate framework,” said Julie Cerqueira, executive director of the Alliance.
According to a report released this month by the group, the participating states collectively are on pace to reduce their emissions 20% to 27% below 2005 levels by 2025. The Paris Agreement calls for the United States to lower emissions by 26% to 28% in that time.
But as a group, the states that haven’t joined are projected to see carbon cutbacks of only 3% to 11%, leaving the nation well short of the necessary reductions. Taken together, national emissions would drop 10% to 17%.
“It’s always easier when national and state [governments] are aligned,” said Louis Verchot, a Colombia-based contributor to the International Panel on Climate Change’s Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. “When states have to go it alone, it’s much harder.”
Opponents of state action often note that one state’s emissions are a fraction of the global total and ask why some governments must sacrifice when others are not doing the same. Many also suspect that carbon-reduction efforts will increase the reach and bureaucracy of state governments.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said in 2017 that he would not join the Alliance because of the unknown economic effects. He added that it’s not his job as governor to analyze global agreements, saying he trusted that the Trump administration had made that assessment before withdrawing.
Proponents respond that climate investment does not necessarily mean economic sacrifice. The latest report shows Alliance states have grown their economic output at a faster rate than the rest of the country. They also point out that a new presidential administration could recommit the country to emissions targets, and that states that invest now will be better prepared if fighting climate change again becomes a national priority.
However, many of the top states for oil and natural gas production, such as Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Louisiana, are not members of the Alliance. Such states likely would face more economic fallout under an aggressive move to cut emissions.
States join the Alliance via a nonbinding declaration from their governors that does not set official emissions goals, add new regulations or invest in clean energy — state laws are required to do that. But members say the group gives state leaders a powerful collective voice and a forum to collaborate and share ideas.
“We are capable of doing this together, especially as states continue to make progress,” said Lauren McCloy, a senior energy policy adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat and one of the Alliance’s three founding members. “We want to make sure that we’re accounting for that progress to the rest of the world and showing what can be done.”
Inslee has been one of the nation’s governors focused most on climate. Earlier this year, he signed a sweeping package of climate legislation, ranging from clean energy mandates in the power sector to building-efficiency standards to limits on the super-pollutant hydrofluorocarbons.
Despite those efforts, Washington also shows the limits of state action. Last month, the state announced its emissions had remained steady between 2016 and 2017. Despite cuts to emissions per capita, population grew and carbon emissions increased in transportation and heating.
Nor is Washington on pace to meet the 2020 emissions targets that it wrote into state law in 2008. And in 2018, voters rejected an Inslee-backed effort to institute a carbon tax, demonstrating political limits along with the existing practical challenges.
California, however, met its 2020 emissions targets four years early. That’s thanks in part to its cap-and-trade program, which limits carbon emissions for electricity providers, fuel suppliers and large manufacturers. While the cap is drawn steadily down, the 450 businesses it regulates must purchase allowances for their emissions.
Rajinder Sahota, an official with the California Air Resources Board who manages the cap-and-trade program, said its wide scope allows the state to meet its climate goals without harming the economy.
“We went for all of the sectors at the same time, because we believe that leaving any sector out would make it an inadvertent winner,” she said. “We haven’t seen any detrimental impacts to our economy, jobs or energy bills for homeowners.”
According to Sahota, the companies that must comply with cap-and-trade account for 85% of carbon emissions in the state. The price of allowances increases each year while their availability goes down, giving companies an incentive to cut carbon.
The program also has brought in $12 billion from the sale of carbon allowances, money California reinvests in other efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. The state has achieved 99% to 100% compliance each year, she added, and has not had to tap its reserve “safety valve” of allowances to bail out companies having trouble getting under the cap.
“The idea of having a declining cap is so there’s a strong price signal, so companies realize they have to become more efficient,” Sahota said. “We’ve seen how business has actually gotten accustomed to the carbon price.”
While California’s state government has long focused on climate, governors elsewhere have faced difficulty in making it a priority. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, joined the Alliance in 2019, but the state’s Republican-led legislature has not shown enthusiasm for his administration’s climate goals. For now, that means Wisconsin’s early efforts will happen on a smaller scale.
“We plan to start in-house, making sure our state government functions are done in a more sustainable way, new buildings are efficient, we’re modernizing our state fleet of vehicles and working with our farmers to employ more sustainable practices,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Evers’ pick to lead the state’s Task Force on Climate Change.
Barnes said Wisconsin’s utility providers have been forward-thinking in adopting clean energy goals. He added that the Evers administration will persuade more cities and counties to act, simply by removing the possibility that their actions will be overruled at the state level. Long-term, the administration is still weighing new regulations, including penalizing the state’s biggest emitters. But Barnes admitted that passing aggressive climate bills could be a challenge.
“It’s a very difficult climate — no pun intended — in the legislature,” he said.
When Evers joined the Alliance, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, called the move strictly “symbolic,” while also telling the Associated Press he was skeptical the governor’s task force was designed to do anything but “make people on the left feel better about themselves.”
Earlier this year in Montana, another Alliance member state, Gov. Steve Bullock created the Montana Climate Solutions Council, a coalition that will recommend state climate efforts, partly in response to legislators’ inaction. Bullock is a Democrat, but Republicans dominate the legislature.
“One of the driving needs for the work of our council is the fact that our legislature hasn’t been able to respond to these objectives,” said Patrick Holmes, Bullock’s natural resources policy adviser. “We’ll be able to identify some things that are attractive for the legislature to tackle in the next session.”
Focusing on issues including renewable energy, transportation and energy efficiency, Holmes said the administration is confident the Paris targets are “very achievable” for Montana.
For all the painstaking efforts in climate-focused states to reduce emissions, actions elsewhere could offset those gains. A report released earlier this month by the University of Texas found that the ongoing infrastructure buildout for that state’s oil and gas boom could produce emissions equivalent to 131 coal-fired power plants by 2030, which is about 8% of national emissions in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. Texas is already by far the largest emitter by volume, though several states emit more per capita.
A spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality did not respond by publication time to questions about the state’s emissions.
The nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states that make up the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which began in 2009 with 10 members, say they’ve provided a model for states that want to work together to reduce carbon emissions.
The RGGI states have established a collective cap on emissions from power plants and auction allowances to emitters. Unlike California’s cap-and-trade program, RGGI covers only the power sector, but it increases its impact by crossing state lines.
The cap is lowered over time, and member states use the auction proceeds — more than $3 billion — to pay for renewable energy projects and make buildings more energy efficient. RGGI states have cut their power sector emissions nearly in half in the past decade while growing their economies faster than the rest of the nation.
Paul Hibbard, a consultant with the Analysis Group, authored a study last year that found RGGI has generated $4.7 billion in economic activity, which he credited to the reinvestment of allowance revenue into local economies.
While RGGI has earned widespread praise, it has also faced challenges. New Jersey left the program under then-Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who claimed it was a “failure.” The state is now poised to rejoin under Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, while Virginia and Pennsylvania are contemplating joining as well.
Meanwhile, some observers have noted that many of the emissions reductions in those states are attributable to market trends in the power sector, not the group’s caps.
Many of the states that make up RGGI have formed the Transportation and Climate Initiative, which soon will roll out a proposal for a similar cap-and-invest program that would apply to fuel suppliers. The transportation sector is now the largest national producer of carbon, comprising 29% of 2017 emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That percentage is even higher in many of the climate-focused states, which have reduced power sector emissions but have a more difficult time dealing with cars.
In Washington, 42% of emissions come from transportation. The state has been among the leaders in electric vehicle adoption, and Inslee has pushed to enact a clean fuel standard and invest in public transportation. Still, McCloy noted, the nation’s “car-centric” infrastructure makes sweeping changes difficult.
“We need to make sure that people have access to transportation services,” she said. “For the foreseeable future, that’s going to include personal vehicles. In that respect, the state doesn’t have a ton of tools available.”