Cities and states solidify their plan to move forward on climate without Trump

California Gov. Jerry Brown with German Federal Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks. CREDIT: AP Photo/Linda Wang

Following the Trump administration’s June announcement that it would officially withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, hundreds of cities and businesses, joined by a handful of states, promised to uphold the country’s commitments with or without the federal government.

Now, those cities, states, and businesses — collectively called the We Are Still In coalition — are taking that promise one step further, announcing Wednesday that they will measure their emissions reductions and present a compilation of existing sub-national climate commitments to the United Nations at this year’s climate conference in Bonn.

“To see states and cities in the U.S. and territories and regions around the globe align their ambition and plans with the aims of the Paris agreement is almost unprecedented in the history of U.N. environmental treaties,” Nick Nuttall, director of communications and outreach for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) told ThinkProgress.

So far, seven states, including California and New York — the country’s second and ninth-largest energy-related emitters— have signed on to the coalition, as well as 227 cities and counties and more than 1,600 businesses.

The quantification effort launched on Wednesday, known as America’s Pledge, aims to standardize reporting on emissions reductions and climate action from participating cities, states, and businesses, so that the U.N. — and other countries — can see how the United States is progressing on climate despite a federal plan. In addition to the cities, states, and businesses that have committed to action through the We Are Still In coalition, the effort includes the Climate Mayors coalition of cities and the U.S. Climate Alliance group of states.

On a national and international level, climate action by cities and states can make a big difference. Cities are responsible for 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so even actions that seem hyper-local — like increasing energy efficiency for municipal buildings or replacing fossil-fuel powered city buses with an electric fleet — can help bend the global emissions curve.

“The American government may have pulled out of the Paris agreement, but American society remains committed to it — and we will redouble our efforts to achieve its goals,” Michael Bloomberg, a U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change and coalition leader, said in a statement.

The pledge will not, however, replace the United States’ commitment to the Paris agreement. According to the terms of the agreement, only national governments can be official parties to the treaty. Instead, the cities, states, and businesses — known in official U.N. parlance as “non-party stakeholders” — will join a registry known as the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA). NAZCA, which was launched at the 2014 U.N. climate conference in Lima, Peru, already has some 12,549 commitments from cities, territories, regions, and businesses from around the world.

“Although the focus right now is on the states and cities in the United States following the announcement by the new administration, the fact is that this is part of a movement of sub-national governments around the world to contribute to the global climate agenda,” Nuttall said.

Nutall said that while the U.N. welcomes the initiative from U.S. cities, states, and businesses, the challenge will be quantifying the effect of climate action from diverse and potentially overlapping actors, a process that will likely stretch well beyond this year’s climate conference. If a city is located in a state, and both are part of the coalition, for instance, how are those emissions reductions counted?

“The big challenge right now is how to actually aggregate these pledges and actions by sub-national governments in a way that is meaningful and clear, transparent, so that the world knows precisely what is being achieved,” Nutall said. “Sub-national governments are a subset of a national economy, and clearly if they are all moving then the national economy is moving in terms of climate action.”

“To see states and cities in the U.S. and territories and regions around the globe align their ambition and plans with the aims of the Paris agreement is almost unprecedented in the history of U.N. environmental treaties.”

The America’s Pledge coalition is working with the World Resources Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute to quantify the impact of the sub-national pledges, though the exact mechanism for those measurements remains unclear. According to the New York Times, the measurements will stretch through at least 2025 — the year that the United States, under President Obama, had pledged to meet its national commitment.

Reaching those same commitments without the help of the federal government will be an uphill battle, especially if big emitters like Texas remain indifferent to the effort. And it’s unclear how participating states will drive down emissions — Colorado, for instance, has joined the coalition but announced that it will rely on voluntary emissions reductions from the energy sector.

Still, Nutall said that the growing interest from cities, states, and businesses in moving forward with climate commitments — even without strong national commitments — is a good sign.

“[The commitments] bode well for the years and decades to come,” he said. “There is a real hope that over time we can actually achieve what Paris has asked the world to achieve, which is to spare the world from dangerous climate change,” he said.