Paris Pullout Won't Derail State & Local Climate Progress

NRDC's Dylan Sullivan joins Governor Steve Sisolak and key state partners after signing SB 358 into law.

Today the Trump administration began the legal process for withdrawing from the historic Paris Climate Agreement, submitting a letter of intent to the UN Secretary-General. The withdrawal will take effect one year from the date the letter is sent, which will now be November 4, 2020—the day after the 2020 presidential election.

On its face, the withdrawal move cedes U.S. leadership on climate to other countries and punctuates the short-sightedness of an administration that consistently prioritizes polluters over people. But Trump cannot disrupt the striking momentum seen in states and cities across the country that are taking up this mantle and both moving toward cleaner, more affordable energy and making progress toward meeting the U.S. Paris carbon reduction agreement goals.

It is no longer possible to ignore the devastating wildfires, the succession of "hottest" records (most recently in July), powerful storms, and other signs that climate change is wreaking havoc and getting worse. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, too many Americans are waking up to the reality that we no longer have time to waste in reducing planet-warming pollution. Recognizing both the imperative to act and the opportunity to advance their economies, states and cities across the U.S. are enacting strong policies to slash carbon pollution, invest in energy efficiency, boost renewable energy, electrify transportation, and get fossil fuels out of buildings.

Indeed, the U.S. Climate Alliance—a coalition of states that commit to meeting their share of U.S. Paris Agreement carbon reductions—now includes the governors of 24 states and Puerto Rico. These states are cutting pollution, supporting clean energy development, investing in energy efficiency, and cutting fossil fuel dependence. For example, the nine states that form the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Northeast program aimed at cutting carbon pollution from power plants, will soon be joined by New Jersey, and Virginia, with Pennsylvania aiming to join next. Many of these states are also working together to cut carbon from the transportation sector (now the #1 source of carbon pollution in the U.S.) through the Transportation & Climate Initiative.

U.S. cities are also leading the way on climate as they adopt ambitious climate and clean energy goals and innovate on clean energy and sustainability. The Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge is a 70 million dollar program designed to accelerate 25 ambitious U.S. cities’ efforts to tackle climate change and promote a sustainable future for their residents. These cities, together as a portfolio, are projected to reduce their collective climate emissions by at least 26-28 percent from 2005 levels, which is the goal set forth by the Paris Agreement.

States and cities set big renewable energy targets

More than 3,800 states, cities, and businesses—equivalent in size to the world’s third-largest economy—have affirmed their support of the Paris Agreement goals. In the effort to cut carbon emissions, many states are starting with the power sector. So far this year, five states—New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Maine, and Washington—have joined California and Hawaii in adopting goals to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2050 or sooner. Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and at least 135 cities also have made similar commitments.

In many cases, these common-sense policies—bolstered by tumbling renewable energy prices—are overcoming partisan divides and longstanding dependence on dirty fuels. In Nevada, which currently relies on fossil fuels for more than 70 percent of its electricity, the state legislature enacted a bold new course for clean energy: 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030, 100 percent clean energy by 2050 with unanimous bipartisan support in both houses—not a single vote was cast against the bill in any committee or in either chamber. The policy promises to spur the state's economy, generating more than $539 million in wages, supporting an additional 11,170 green-collar jobs in 2030, and saving utility customers nearly $2 million. New Mexico, too, has set an ambitious goal to make its electricity supply 100 percent carbon-free by 2045, with a ramp up of renewable energy that will begin immediately, even though it is currently heavily dependent on coal and gas. The bill also includes support for economic and workforce development.

New York's nation-leading climate legislation, which aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040 and 70 percent of it from renewable energy resources by 2030, and also mandates strong energy efficiency savings, is also notable for its inclusion of key equity mandates to ensure all New Yorkers benefit from the transition to cleaner energy sources. The policy requires at least 35 percent of the benefits of the state's clean energy program go to the historically marginalized communities that tend to get hit hardest by pollution and climate change.

More major commitments are also underway. In the historically coal-reliant Midwest, Illinois has introduced legislation that calls for 100 percent renewable energy. And North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has launched an ambitious climate and clean energy initiative via Executive Order 80. At this point, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have renewable portfolio standards that mandate some percentage of renewable energy generation. These standards have driven roughly half of all renewable energy growth since 2000.

Rolling ahead with clean cars

The Trump administration has spun its wheels while struggling to undo fuel economy standards and challenge California's authority to set its own strict rules. In the meantime, several states are stepping up to rein in emissions from vehicles—a critical effort, given that transportation is now the largest source of U.S. emissions. Thirteen states have joined California in adopting low-emission vehicle (LEV) standards, and 10 of those also have adopted California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program, which requires automakers to offer a certain number of ZEVs as a percentage of overall sales. The program works: ZEV sales in California increased 29 percent between 2016 and 2017. Over the past year, Colorado adopted both the LEV and ZEV standards—the first Interior West state to do so in a decade. The governors of New Mexico and Minnesota have recently signaled their intent to get their states on board with these standards as well.

NRDC's Noah Long, Simon Mui, and Susan Nedell (E2) join Gov. Polis and partners for EV legislation signing.

States in the Midwest and the South are also showing incredible progress in introducing EV programs. Electric vehicle pilot programs have been launched in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Carolina, integrating investment in charging infrastructure and various incentives for drivers. Cities also have a key role to play: In Ohio, the Smart Columbus initiative aiming to increase EV adoption, improve EV charging infrastructure, and electrify public vehicles has realized a six-fold increase in EV registrations since 2016.

Energy efficiency & decarbonization strides

Again driving progress where the federal government lags and attempting to move us backward, several states have invested in energy efficiency, recognizing that it is one of the cheapest, simplest ways to reduce emissions. States are leading the way here, too. For example, the state of Washington set minimum efficiency standards for appliances that are not regulated by the federal government, including showerheads, portable air conditioners, and faucets. Similar statewide standards in Hawaii are projected to save residents up to $38 million on their utility bills by 2025. New Mexico is updating its energy efficiency building code and increased utility energy efficiency investments. Colorado joined several states in adopting federal efficiency standards to backstop any federal rollbacks. Illinois is now in the second year of new legislation requiring one of the most aggressive energy efficiency standards in the nation, with an emphasis on ensuring that low income consumers have access to the benefits of efficiency. New York State is implementing one of the strongest energy efficiency portfolios in the nation, and New York City recently adopted a trailblazing buildings performance mandate.

Buildings remain something of an emissions blind spot in the U.S., but states are beginning to act on this sector as well. California tackles building emissions in its most recent Integrated Energy Policy Report, laying the groundwork for decarbonizing more buildings, while other states such as Massachusetts have taken the lead in adopting building energy efficiency mandates and programs. And the City of San Jose and other California communities are innovating in the crucial area of building electrification—getting fossil fuels out of our buildings and moving to clean electricity instead. San Jose just passed a landmark “stretch” building energy code that will mean new buildings will have to be heated and cooled by clean electricity, not natural gas or other dirty fuels.

Brighter prospects ahead

Even if Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement becomes official a year from now, the 2020 presidential vote also lies ahead, and a subsequent president could rejoin at any time after a 30-day waiting period. Just as every day seems to bring some new and unsettling headline about the effects of climate change, it also brings a steady drumbeat of news about forward-thinking leaders who are taking action. The U.S. transition to a clean energy economy is only just beginning.

About the Authors

Kit Kennedy

Senior Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.