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Tina Casey headshot

Can the U.S. Act On Climate Without the Federal Government?

A new report shows how U.S. businesses, cities and states can accelerate decarbonization, even if the federal government maintains no formal commitment to the Paris climate agreement.
By Tina Casey
wind energy climate action

When President Donald Trump announced plans to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement in 2017, advocates feared the worst. But by then, the bottom-line benefits of decarbonization were already coming into focus. Scores of leading U.S. businesses were already firmly in the decarbonization corner, along with multiple cities, states, academic institutions and civic entities. 

A new report from the U.S. climate action organization America’s Pledge shows how harnessing that collective willpower can accelerate decarbonization, even if the federal government maintains no formal commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Honoring the Paris Agreement on climate change (or not)

To start with the bad news first, the new report—entitled Accelerating America’s Pledge on Climate Change—makes it clear that the lack of a strong national climate policy will continue to have a significant, negative impact on the nation’s ability to accelerate decarbonization.

The report found that the election of “climate-forward candidates” from the president on down could result in an almost 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade, compared to a 2005 baseline.

In contrast, a coalition-based or “bottom-up” approach without a fully engaged federal policy over the same time period would result in a 37 percent drop in GHGs. That's no small feat—in fact it aligns with the nation's Paris Agreement commitment of a 26 to 28 percent reduction by 2025. But on its own, it's not enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, as called for in the Agreement. 

Climate leadership matters, at every level

Considering that 2020 is an election year, a pause for context is required. The America’s Pledge organization was co-launched in 2017 by former California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The latter's nonprofit, Bloomberg Philanthropies, provided additional funding for the new report last spring. 

In this context, some could say the report now functions as supporting material (and free publicity) for Bloomberg’s newly announced campaign for U.S. president.

Nonetheless, it provides corporate leaders with a powerful blueprint for accelerating action on climate change. Researchers from the University of Maryland, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the World Resources Institute and CDP analyzed the real-world decarbonization leadership of U.S. states, cities and businesses. Using this data, they calculated the impact of those commitments if incorporated into national policy.

In addition to halving greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years, adding local experience to national policy could build the platform for a net-zero carbon emissions economy in the U.S. as early as 2050, the researchers found.

And now, for the good (clean tech) news

If that sounds overly ambitious, perhaps so. However, the America’s Pledge organization tracks the progress of its existing roster of states, cities and businesses honoring the Paris Agreement, and it has found that decarbonization is occurring faster than anticipated.

However, it would be a mistake to attribute the momentum solely to political or collective willpower. An equally important factor consists of the technology and systems that enable rapid decarbonization.

Wind and solar power, electric vehicles, high-efficiency lighting, and other clean technologies were barely on the horizon 10 years ago, and now they are in or near the mainstream. With that in mind, the researchers emphasize “high-impact” decarbonization pathways that are already in hand. 

Their 10-year strategy includes accelerating the transition to clean electricity and other clean fuels, decarbonizing the transportation and building sectors, and leveraging carbon storage in forests, farms and coastal wetlands.

Notably, the plan does not account for carbon capture at coal power plants, probably because there will be none. The 2030 scenario envisions no coal power, 60 percent renewable electricity or more, all-electric construction for new buildings, and electric vehicles accounting for two-thirds of all new car sales. 

There does not appear to be much room for new natural gas in electricity generation, either: “New analysis also indicates that clean energy portfolios of wind, solar and storage coupled with demand-side management cost less than 90 percent of the proposed gas-fired power plants across the country,” reads page 22 of the report. “These plants, if built, would put customers, shareholders and society at risk for stranded costs.”

U.S. businesses are already voting for decarbonizaton with their checkbooks by aggressively pursuing new opportunities to acquire renewable energy and upgrade to more efficient systems. Combining that bottom-line motivation with political willpower is the next logical step for accelerating action on climate change, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office next.

Image credits: Karsten Würth/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey