States & Cities Are Driving Climate & Clean Energy Progress

One in three people in the United States now lives in a state or city that has committed to 100% clean electricity.
Solar panel installers
Credit: DOE

Part of NRDC's Series Reviewing 2020 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

It was the year that never seemed to end. The 2020 blows kept coming as the inter-related crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial brutality, climate upheaval, and economic recession inflicted hardship and loss on so many. With millions of Americans drastically behind on their energy and water utility bills, and moratoria on service disconnections expiring, the United States is facing a deepening economic and public health crisis. Nonetheless, Americans are stepping up to meet these challenges.

And despite the continual crises and President Trump’s desperate efforts to turn back the clock on climate and clean energy in the United States, states, cities, and communities continued to demand and lead the fight for climate action.

That demand became stronger than ever as the struggles for climate justice, racial justice, and economic recovery coalesced like never before. In fact, 1 in 3 people in the United States now lives in a state or city that has committed to 100% clean electricity. And the role of states, cities, and communities as climate leaders will continue to be vital even as President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris take the helm and lead the U.S. forward again on climate action. This must be the year when city, state, and federal policies all need to work hard to achieve the climate momentum that we need.

There is so much to achieve in 2021. Every level of government—and each of us—will need to be engaged and energized.

We’ll need to move full speed ahead with decarbonizing each key sector of our economy and putting equity, economic recovery, and quality jobs at the center. That means:

  • Getting carbon out of our buildings in a way that puts low-income communities first
  • Making vehicles pollution-free and improving public transportation and clean mobility options
  • Fueling economic recovery and job creation by accelerating the move to a carbon-free power sector and getting carbon out of the industrial sector

And of course, we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels fast.

Federal climate action will be crucial to getting all this done: strong climate and clean energy policies will ensure progress throughout the United States.

But states and cities will continue to be vital. Under our federal system, states play the primary role in regulating investor-owned utilities and setting climate and clean energy policy at the state level. And cities play a vital role in building demand for clean energy and developing innovative climate policies that can be replicated and scaled up to the state and federal levels.

The 25 cities in the American Cities Climate Challenge initiative are leading the way for cities. Together, successful state and city climate action will drive ever-stronger federal climate ambition.

Let’s take a look at some highlights for state and local climate progress in 2020 and what’s in store for 2021.

Western Region

California, long a climate leader, continued to set the pace with the adoption of a landmark policy requiring that all large trucks be clean and electric by 2050, as well as a new target that all cars, SUVs, and light trucks have zero emissions by 2035. California’s cities are leading as well: to date, 40 municipalities have adopted ordinances requiring or strongly encouraging electric appliances and equipment in new buildings, a movement that’s spreading to cities in other states. San José, the nation's 10th-largest city, recently expanded their all-electric new-buildings ordinance.

More Western states are also upping the region’s climate ambition. After climate-denying legislators blocked a climate bill for the second year in a row, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued a sweeping climate executive order to create a path forward. In the Mountain West, voters in Nevada and New Mexico approved significant clean energy and regulatory capacity ballot initiatives.

Nevada kicked off the process of adopting clean car standards and New Mexico agreed to close the coal-burning San Juan Generating Station, providing tens of millions of dollars in support for the workers and community affected by the plant closure, and approved a plan to replace coal with all clean energy. Tri-State, the Western rural co-op utility, also announced plans to close all its coal-burning power plants in Colorado and New Mexico, add significant new renewable energy, and cut system-wide carbon pollution.

And in Denver, voters approved a ballot initiative creating a $40 million fund to support the city’s climate programs, half of which will be invested in low-income communities and communities disproportionately burdened by pollution and climate impacts.

In 2021, expect the momentum for Western climate action to continue to grow. Two reports issued by NRDC, Sierra Club, Gridlab, and PSE Healthy Energy, in partnership with the Clean Energy Equity Fund, map out the path forward for Colorado and Nevada to meet their ambitious climate goals. A forthcoming 2021 report will provide a similar climate path in New Mexico.

Midwest Region

The Midwest states also saw continued climate progress in 2020.

In Illinois, the campaign to enact groundbreaking climate justice and clean energy legislation called the Clean Energy Jobs Act picked up steam in the fall, despite the COVID-19 crisis and a political corruption scandal in the state capital that embroiled utility executives and elected officials in controversy. Getting this bill over the finish line in 2021 will be a crucial test for Illinois climate leadership.

Michigan Governor Whitmer issued a major climate executive order committing the state to achieving net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050. 2021 will be the year when the rubber hits the road as Michigan maps out equitable pathways to achieving these goals. Michigan also made significant progress on energy efficiency.

After a federal investigation revealed corruption by state elected and utility officials, Ohio saw new calls for the repeal of 2019 legislation that subsidized coal and nuclear while eliminating the state’s clean energy requirements. Despite the political upheaval, clean energy made progress as an Ohio job creator, with large-scale solar projects built in rural Appalachia and voters in Cincinnati (Hamilton County) and Columbus (Franklin County) approving renewable and clean transportation ballot initiatives.

In Missouri, the utility Ameren rolled out plans to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050 via huge investments in wind, solar, and energy storage. And St. Louis enacted an ambitious Building Energy Performance Standard ordinance, making it the third city in the United States and the first in the Midwest to do so.

Eastern Region

The East Coast also saw regional, state, and city climate leadership in 2020.

Regionally, 2020 was bookended by the growth of the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which is aimed at cutting carbon from power plants, with New Jersey joining the initiative in January 2020 and Virginia this month. RGGI is now 11 states strong and Pennsylvania is slated to join by the end of 2021.

The RGGI states are increasingly focused on investing revenues from the programs in environmental justice and disadvantaged communities. Virginia, for instance, is dedicating half of RGGI revenues to low-income energy efficiency programs. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, together with the city of Washington, D.C., moved forward with a program to cut carbon from transportation, with commitments to invest program revenues equitably. Other states may join in 2021.

New York continued its leadership and sought to implement the ambitious 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The state enacted legislation to speed the siting of renewable energy, moved forward with an ambitious energy efficiency and building electrification plan, and issued a massive renewables request for proposals. And the Massachusetts legislature has just passed a landmark climate bill which adds that state to the list of those which have committed to reaching net-zero carbon by 2050.

New Jersey, not to be outdone, became the first state outside of California to begin the process of adopting the Advanced Clean Truck rule, which will lead to 100 percent zero-emission trucks by 2050, and enacted a major electric vehicles bill as well as groundbreaking cumulative environmental impact legislation brought about by the activism and leadership of New Jersey environmental justice organizations.

Virginia enacted the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which establishes zero-carbon deadlines for Virginia utilities and makes a major step forward on renewables in the South; the utility Southern Company issued an ambitious climate plan prompted in large part by shareholder activism; and we hope to see a stronger commitment to energy efficiency in Virginia in 2021.

And North Carolina continues to make climate progress, with 2021 a pivotal year for testing whether the state’s climate ambitions will be fully realized. The city of Charlotte approved funding for a large-scale solar project, which is expected to save the city nearly $2 million in electricity costs, offset about 25 percent of carbon emissions from municipal buildings over the next 20 years and generate more than 400 local jobs.


2021 brings new hope for our country as President-elect Biden is inaugurated and the COVID-19 vaccine continues to be rolled out. The growing strength and diversity of the climate movement also bring hope.

But we need action, not just hope. 

Even as the Biden administration moves forward with its ambitious climate plans, states and cities will continue to play a key role, bringing ever-increasing climate action demand and ambition, diversity, and equity to the movement.