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All Progress is Local:

Climate Action is Up to Cities and States Now

By Ben Jervey, Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School

If President Donald Trump sticks to pledges he made on the campaign trail—and so far he is proving to do just that—the federal government won’t be taking any action to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions. More likely, federal agencies and Congress will be implementing policies that strongly encourage the combustion of fossil fuels. With a federal government that will be playing defense against ‘decarbonization’ and clean energy development, a number of American cities and states are setting out to prove that local and regional government is where climate progress really happens. In fact, some influential leaders are certain that cities and states can lead the way to significant nationwide emissions reductions, even under a Trump administration.

Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and currently U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy for cities and climate change, told the China General Chamber of Commerce that even the U.S. pledges to the Paris Agreement are safe. “I am confident that no matter what happens in Washington, no matter what regulations the next administration adopts or rescinds, no matter what laws the next Congress may pass, we will meet the pledges that the U.S. made in Paris,” Bloomberg said. “The reason is simple: Cities, businesses and citizens will continue reducing emissions, because they have concluded — just as China has — that doing so is in their own self-interest.”

Data gathered by ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability backs up Bloomberg’s confidence. ICLEI examined the greenhouse gas emissions inventories for 116 local governments in the U.S. that collectively represent roughly 14% of the U.S. population, including seven of the ten largest American cities. Achieving the goals set by these cities would result in emissions reductions by mid-century equivalent to shutting down 86 coal-fired power plants. While these 116 pledges alone wouldn’t get the U.S. to the national goals pledged to the Paris Agreement, ICLEI is actively working with more than 825 cities, counties, and regional associations that represent more than 141 million Americans—or nearly half of the national population—and the organization is confident that they represent vast untapped potential to take action and formalize emissions reduction commitments.

The hundreds of cities that are actively engaged in climate mitigation strategies but have yet to formalize commitments have some great examples to pull from around the country. Cities as diverse as Atlanta, Georgia, Cincinnati, Ohio, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon have already committed to emissions reductions goals equal to or stronger than current U.S. national commitments in both the medium and long terms— each plans on 28% to 30% reductions by 2030, and 80% reductions by 2050.

At the state level, the potential is just as large. Last year, for instance, California lawmakers voted for 40% greenhouse gas cuts below 1990 levels by 2030 and are also supporting a raft of vehicle emission standards tougher than the rest of the country. More broadly speaking, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, Matt Rodriguez, told reporters at the recent COP22 meetings in Morocco that ten to twelve U.S. states representing 30% of the country’s economy—including California, Washington, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Vermont—are set to actively oppose Trump’s plans to rescind climate and clean energy policies. Meanwhile, a total of 36 states have already developed climate plans and renewable energy targets.

Additionally, when the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of President Obama’s climate policy, was put on hold by the Supreme Court in February, at least 19 states stated their intent to continue decarbonization and CPP compliance planning, despite the uncertainty of a federal mandate.

At the time, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said: “We shouldn’t need a federal edict to understand how vital it is that we keep doing everything in our collective powers to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, and advance Minnesota’s clean energy economy.”

And what if Trump opts to pull out of the Paris Agreement or the UNFCCC process entirely? Cities and states are considering ways to formally represent the interests of the majority of Americans that believe the U.S. should honor its climate commitments to the international community.

California senate leader Kevin De Leon said at COP22 that lawyers were examining ways that the state—which would be the world’s sixth largest economy if it were a country—could formally join the UNFCCC and ratify the Paris Agreement.

Speaking of cities taking a similar tact, Bloomberg said, “If the Trump administration does withdraw from the Paris accord, I will recommend that the 128 U.S. mayors who are part of the Global Covenant of Mayors seek to join in its place.”

“Washington will not have the last word on the fate of the Paris Agreement in the U.S.,” Bloomberg continued, “Mayors will, together with business leaders and citizens.”

Ben Jervey is the Climate and Energy Media Fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School.

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