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U.S. Subnational Action on Climate Takes Off, Complements Federal Legislation
California Governor Newsom discusses climate legislation.

California Governor Newsom discusses climate legislation at Mare Island in Vallejo, California. 

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by Matt Piotrowski and Max London, Climate Advisers

29 September 2022

After the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords and rolled back federal environmental regulations, climate experts and advocates shifted their resources to the state and local levels in an effort to stay on track to meet emissions targets. A similar dynamic is playing out now as subnational actors are building on momentum from Congress passing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the largest climate bill in U.S. history. Even with the expected emissions reductions from IRA programs -- which most modelers and forecasters say put the United States on a path to reach a 40 percent decline by 2030 -- states and cities will still have to take aggressive action for the United States to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target of 50 percent below 2005 levels.

This piece examines the progress on emissions reduction that states and localities have achieved in the past six months, along with analyzing how subnational action can help the United States reach its long-term climate goals.

Legislative Developments at the State Level

Generally speaking, the United States is sharply divided between states making progress on emissions targets and states that are largely opposed to taking broad legislative and regulatory action to mitigate climate change. The U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of 24 governors (20 Democrats and four Republicans), has sought to fill gaps in leadership at the federal level through the information sharing of government-funded R&D and collaboration on initiatives that address renewable energy market demand and efficiency standards. But the coalition represents only 42 percent of total U.S. emissions, and most governors of states with high fossil fuel production have elected not to join the alliance.

Still, a number of jurisdictions have passed more aggressive emissions reduction legislation in recent months, and others are zeroing in on climate action through budget proposals and executive regulations. When there were significant doubts that a federal climate bill would pass, climate activists had already started shifting their attention and resources from Capitol Hill to state legislatures in the hopes of seeing more action at the local level.

This growing attention to state action has led to accelerated action this year. Rhode Island enacted legislation last month that will set the state on a path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2033, solidifying the fastest projected timeline of any U.S. state to reach 100 percent renewable energy. In Maryland, the state’s legislature passed a similar bill in April, committing to net-zero emissions by 2045 and cutting 60 percent of emissions by 2031. Earlier in the year, Connecticut passed two bills that commit the state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, the regulation of the sales of carbon-emitting trucks, and the conversion of the school bus system to all-electric by 2035. California legislators passed a series of new bills to cut emissions after Governor Newsom (Democrat) urged lawmakers to pass ambitious climate legislation despite failures in previous years. Most of the proposed bills in California passed, with a record

$54 billion earmarked for climate spending. The state made other important moves that will benefit the climate. The life of California’s last nuclear power plant was extended by five years, new restrictions were put on oil and gas drilling, and the state committed to stop adding CO2 into the atmosphere by 2045 -- but, at the same time, the state’s cap-and-trade program has been controversial and has yet to be extended beyond 2030. California regulators also agreed to ban the sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2035, a move that will likely prompt other states to follow California’s lead.

Other states have enacted legislation that incentivizes companies to take an active role in the transition to a green economy. Maine’s new grid planning law requires utilities to submit plans on how they will meet the state’s emissions targets. New Mexico is strengthening its clean car standards, and its Environmental Improvement Board has implemented regulations to reduce the number of methane leaks from the state’s oil and gas producers. Colorado has also targeted oil and gas companies, increasing their financial liability for cleanup costs and pollution risks.

Members of the U.S. Climate Alliance are also stepping up their climate commitments through executive action and planning. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer released a plan in April that details how executive agencies can lead the state to 60 percent clean energy, the construction of infrastructure that supports two million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road, and the protection of 30 percent of Michigan’s land and water by 2030. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers released the state’s first clean energy plan the same month, outlining initiatives to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2050 and invest in clean energy workforce development. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order earlier this year that calls for 50 percent of new car sales to be EVs by 2030 and sets a goal of cutting overall emissions 50 percent by 2030.

Clean energy budgetary developments and investment proposals are also gaining momentum at the state level. For instance, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a $17 billion transportation package into law, which is expected to catalyze projects electrifying public transportation and build walking and biking infrastructure. In New York, the state legislature passed a bill that requires all school buses to be net-zero vehicles by 2035. The bill is connected to a separate initiative on the ballot this November that would invest around $1.5 billion for EV bus purchases, wind power supply chains and clean water infrastructure.

Impact on U.S. Climate Targets

As noted earlier, even with the massive climate bill passed by Congress, which allocates about $370 billion to climate and clean energy initiatives, the United States will not reach President Biden’s target of reducing GHG emissions by 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Nonetheless, current estimates suggest that the IRA may have placed President Biden’s 2030 goal nearly within reach. U.S emissions are already about 20 percent below 2005 levels. Most estimates say that the IRA puts the United States on a trajectory to cut emissions by about 40 percent versus 2005 levels by 2030.

Ambition at the state level has the potential to fill the gap to meet the 50 percent target. Members of the U.S. Climate Alliance are largely on track to reach or exceed their goals, and member states have implemented policies and initiatives that are estimated to collectively reduce the group’s emissions 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

However, states outside the coalition – many of which have high levels of fossil fuel production – have greater uncertainty regarding climate action and emissions reductions. Many of these states are controlled by conservative governments that have thus far avoided or actively hampered renewable energy development projects and climate regulations.

Over half of U.S. state governments do not have specific GHG targets or mechanisms to accurately track reductions. Many of those same states are using litigation and executive action to try to slow down market shifts to renewable energy. For instance, multiple Republican-led states, including West Virginia, Texas, Utah, and Idaho, are pulling assets from companies that are divesting from fossil fuels or prioritizing Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues.

Still, conservative states are not devoid of climate initiatives. Private sector and federal-state partnerships are poised to enhance emissions-reduction actions in these states as well. With over $500 billion allocated for state and local projects under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021, Republican governors can use federal funds to build out EV infrastructure, support clean energy development and strengthen public transportation systems.

In solidly conservative states such as Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, and North Dakota, revenue opportunities have superseded traditionally conservative policy positions to drive an enormous expansion in wind energy. In some of these Republican-controlled states, wind power generates as much as 57 percent of total electricity, far outpacing states like California and New York. Democratic states are also taking advantage of federal-led wind power initiatives, as seen in an announcement over the summer that the Biden administration will accelerate funding for supply chains to support the development of offshore wind facilities along the coasts of 11 states.

The high level of government spending, private-sector initiatives, financial incentives for clean energy, and overall climate ambition at the state level could have sweeping implications in mitigating climate risks and helping the country reach its 2030 target. These measures complement federal action that is projected to significantly, but not fully, move the US towards transitioning to a net-zero economy.

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Matt Piotrowski

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Senior Director of Policy and Research, Climate Advisers
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Max London

Max London

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Max is a Policy & Communications Intern at Climate Advisers