Twelve U.S. states and the District of Columbia have just launched a coordinated effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation in the Northeastern U.S. and part of the Mid-Atlantic, too. The effort has enlisted vigorous support from businesses as well as environmental groups. It is yet another indication that state-level policy can push forward on climate action, even when the federal government refuses to act - and after COP25 concluded with disappointing results.
The new initiative is the latest project of a state-level collaboration called the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI), which formed in 2010.
Along with Washington, D.C., the 12 state members are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Vermont.
Under the new initiative, these states will commit to a regional greenhouse gas cap-and-invest program that aims at transitioning to a “more sustainable, resilient, lower carbon transportation sector,” with the end goal of providing "more transportation options, improved air quality and public health, and economic opportunity.”
There is still a way to go before the initiative kicks in. Currently, TCI is asking for public comment on a draft Memorandum of Understanding for the climate action plan, with a deadline of February 28, 2020.
Among the questions TCI aims to answer through the public comments are:
“What factors should TCI jurisdictions consider when setting the starting level and the trajectory for a regional cap on carbon dioxide emissions from transportation fuels?”
“How should the compliance period be structured to provide needed flexibility, while ensuring environmental integrity?”
“What factors should TCI jurisdictions consider when designing stability mechanisms for managing uncertainties regarding future emissions and allowance prices?”
As may be expected, the new initiative has earned widespread praise from environmental organizations as well as green investor groups like Ceres, though some argue that it does not go far enough.
Business stakeholders in the region are also advocating for the new initiative.
Familiar names in the sustainability field like Autodesk, Etsy, and Ikea are among the leading business stakeholders contributing to a December 17 press release from Ceres in support of the TCI climate action plan, along with lesser known companies like Vermont-based King Arthur Flour.
King Arthur draws attention to the rural economic development angle, stating that “the opportunity to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure, provide rural communities with more efficient and clean transportation solutions, and combat climate change makes this proposal a win-win.”
Of particular interest is support from energy stakeholders. In a joint statement of support, Exelon, National Grid and PSEG argue that accelerating climate action is both necessary and doable, considering that low carbon alternatives are available now. Exelon is also among the growing number of companies to put an internal price on carbon as well.
These energy companies anticipate bottom line benefits from distributing the fruits of a low carbon economy, especially as it pertains to improving services across the board.
In their joint statement, they affirm TCI’s goal of a cap-and-invest policy that steers investment toward “communities that are underserved by clean transportation alternatives, disproportionately bear the costs of the current transportation system, or suffer disproportionate impacts of vehicular pollution and climate change.”
Of course, the new TCI initiative did not pop out of thin air.
Over the years, state-level policy makers in the Northeast have been aggressively pursuing climate action on other fronts as well.
Several TCI members are also founding members of the groundbreaking 2005 Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and the coastal members are part of the 2010 Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium. TCI members also spearheaded the Multi-State Zero Emission Vehicles Action Plan in 2014.
For businesses in some states that are not fully engaged on climate action, the new TCI plan represents an opportunity to make up for lost time. In that regard, New Jersey illustrates how one state-level leader on climate policy can make all the difference.
New Jersey was a founding member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but former Governor Chris Christie summarily pulled out of the agreement after he took office in 2010. He also pulled New Jersey out of, or slow-walked, every other multi-state climate action collaboration effort in the Northeast.
After Christie left office in 2018, New Jersey revived its climate action efforts. As one of his first acts in office, incoming Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order that helped kickstart the state’s moribund wind power industry.
Among other initiatives, New Jersey has also joined TCI and the International ZEV Action Plan, and it is scheduled to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in 2020.
The lesson is clear: if business stakeholders in other regions are to reap the bottom-line benefits of a cap-and-invest system, they will need to lobby their state legislators to act.
Unfortunately, in many legislative districts climate change is still a hot-button issue that elected representatives dare not touch. In that kind of environment, it is risky for leading businesses to openly rally voters and partner with grassroots organizations in support of climate action.
Nevertheless, over the past 10 years public opinion has been slowly swinging in the direction of action on climate change.
With careful messaging that focuses on the community benefits of climate action, trusted brands can help sway hearts and minds — and votes — to help accelerate the demand for state-level action on climate change.
Image credit: Devon Wellesley
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.