By Jeremy Deaton
A year ago today, President Trump announced the United States would exit the Paris Climate Agreement. His decision drew harsh criticism from world leaders, CEOs and U.S. elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans. In the days that followed, hundreds of cities, states, businesses and universities pledged to do their part to uphold the Paris Agreement.
Now, one year on, groups are looking to make good on that promise, a task made measurably harder by Trump’s ongoing efforts to dismantle federal climate protections. To that end, the 17 Democratic and Republican governors belonging to the U.S. Climate Alliance have announced a slate of new initiatives to fulfill their share of the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement, cutting carbon pollution by more than 26 percent by 2025.
While the announcement is scant on details, it is notable for its scale. The assorted states account for $9 trillion in GDP, more than every country except the United States and China. These initiatives will do more than cap pollution from cars, trucks and power plants. States want to change the way power is bought and sold, find new ways to pay for clean energy projects, eradicate the most dangerous greenhouse gasses, and soak up carbon that’s already lingering in the atmosphere, among other measures.
“Across the country, the move towards clean, renewable energy has become unstoppable,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D). “People want clean air, a healthy environment, and the jobs and investments that come with building the next generation economy, and nothing the federal government chooses to do can change that.”
The full details of these initiatives will be released in the run-up to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this September. What follows is a rough outline of the areas states plan to tackle. As this outline makes clear, not only are states taking climate change seriously, they understand that it is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted response. As advocates are fond of saying, there is no silver bullet for climate change — only silver buckshot.
Cut the most potent greenhouse gasses
A recent analysis found the most effective single solution to climate change is to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, which are used as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators. Hydrofluorocarbons are extremely potent greenhouse gasses, trapping thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide. In 2016, countries agreed to phase out the use of these chemicals, starting in 2019. U.S. Climate Alliance states are developing a plan to draw down the use of these hydrofluorocarbons as well as other highly potent greenhouse gasses, like methane, which is known to leak from natural gas drilling sites, as well as farms and landfills. California is already leading on hydrofluorocarbons and Colorado on methane, providing a model for other states.
Make appliances use less power
Over the last decade, the U.S. economy has grown while power consumption has stayed flat, thanks to advances in energy efficiency — namely more power-thrifty light bulbs and appliances. U.S. Climate Alliance states want to build on this momentum by issuing new efficiency standards for consumer products not already covered by federal regulations. States are aiming to issue a uniform set of standards to make it easier for businesses to comply.
Develop green banks
To draw down carbon pollution, states will need to ramp up production of clean energy, and that means financing new wind and solar plants. Commercial banks are often wary of pouring money into these projects for fear that they won’t recoup their investment. New York addressed this problem by creating a green bank, a public institution that reduces the risk of investing in clean energy. A green bank might fund a small, risky project that will later attract the attention of a commercial investor, or it might also partner with a commercial bank on a project, either by providing additional funding or by insuring a loan. The U.S. Climate Alliance is working to develop new green banks linked to the New York Green Bank. As part of that effort, the New York Green Bank is raising more than $1 billion to be invested in projects in other states.
Modernize power grids
The shift from coal and gas to wind and solar demands that utilities do more than replace old, polluting power plants with new, clean power plants. Wind and solar are fundamentally different than coal and gas. They only crank out electricity when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, but they don’t need to be centralized. This is particularly true of solar, which can be installed on rooftops and in backyards. To accommodate more clean energy, grid operators will need to allow solar owners to sell power to their neighbors or to store that power in batteries for later use. The U.S. Climate Alliance is developing a playbook that will guide regulators and utilities on how to integrate renewables into the power grid.
Make solar power cheaper
The price of solar panels has dropped precipitously in recent years, leading to a boom in solar power. Unfortunately, in most parts of the United States, a new solar plant is still too costly to compete with an existing coal- or gas-fired plant, and Trump’s recently imposed tariffs on imported solar cells have dealt the industry a significant setback. To drive down the cost of solar, the U.S. Climate Alliance states are looking for ways to simplify the permitting process. Too much red tape can drive up the cost of a solar installation by extending the time it takes to complete a new project.
Clean up the transportation sector
Transportation accounts for the largest share of U.S. carbon pollution, most of it from cars and trucks. To curb pollution from streets and highways, U.S. Climate Alliance states want to lay out more bike lanes and build more busses, trams and trains, so that commuters can get around without a car. States also want to build more charging stations, for example, so that it’s easier to own an electric car. They are also exploring issuing new or expanded tax credits for low-emissions vehicles.
Build stronger infrastructure
The coming era of climate extremes will push critical infrastructure to its breaking point. Heavy floods, supercharged storms and extreme heat threaten the roads, bridges, levees and power lines that communities depend on. U.S. Climate Alliance states are working to change the way state and local governments plan infrastructure projects, taking into account future risks from climate change. States are also looking to reduce the pollution generated by new infrastructure projects, for example, by using low-carbon materials.
Protect forests that soak up carbon
To meet the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement, it won’t be enough to replace fossil fuels with renewables. Countries will also need to remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere. Currently, the most cost-effective way to do that is to plant more trees and other plants, which scrub carbon dioxide from the sky and store it in their leaves and branches. U.S. Climate Alliance states are working to preserve farms, forests, wetlands, parks and other green spaces that will soak up all that unwanted carbon pollution.
Together, these initiatives could put a sizable dent in the carbon output of U.S. Climate Alliance states. For the most part, these plans are still a little vague. Climate experts and local policymakers expect to hammer out the details in the months ahead. “They have made a commitment to address the issue,” said U.S. Climate Alliance executive director Julie Cerqueira. “They are breaking ground in a number of spaces.”