Forget the federal government, a ‘bottom-up’ fight could keep the U.S. on target to slash emissions

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There’s a road map for rapid and comprehensive U.S. emissions reductions by states, cities and businesses that eliminates outright reliance on the federal government to keep the country in the global race to curb man-made climate effects, according to a new report, Accelerating America’s Pledge.

However, action at the national level can only help the U.S. meet or exceed targets, the report said. It was issued Monday as part of the second week of U.N. climate talks in Madrid.

Read: Global carbon emissions projected to hit record levels, due to big jumps by China, India

The America’s Pledge initiative was established by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently joined a crowded Democratic field for the 2020 election, and former California Governor Jerry Brown, who now works with University of California-Berkeley and China’s top climate change official on a research-focused initiative to stop the rise of greenhouse gases.

The foundation for faster climate action is already being laid, with U.S. subnational actors already on pace to reduce emissions 25% below 2005 levels by 2030, the report said. Scaling up current leading actions at the subnational level could reduce emissions 37% by 2030 and if subnational efforts are joined by strong federal climate policy over the next decade, the U.S. could reduce emissions 49% by 2030.

“The results imply that current measures would fall short of the original U.S. national climate commitment (known in the U.N. as a “nationally determined contribution” or NDC), yielding a reduction of 19% below 2005 levels in 2025 instead of the intended 26%-28%,” Tom Cyrs and colleagues with the World Resources Institute wrote in a blog post responding to the report.

“However, the report shows that heightened levels of climate policy ambition can meet or even exceed the original NDC, potentially placing the United States on a course consistent with what’s needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target scientists say is necessary for averting some of the worst impacts of climate change,” they wrote.

For a “bottom-up scenario,” targeting a 37% emissions reduction, current actions would be adopted on larger scales over the next decade, and states with positive track records on climate policy would adopt the most ambitious measures. In the “all-in scenario” with Washington’s buy-in and targeting a 49% emissions reduction, federal regulatory and legislative actions would allow the rest of the country to reach similar levels of ambition.

For example, renewable electricity would provide nearly 50% of generation nationwide by 2030, especially if a clean electricity standard, updated regulations on methane leaks from oil and gas, vehicle fuel economy standards and rules to phase down super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are promoted, the report finds.

Local-level benefits, including job growth and cutting health costs, are another factor that promotes say must advance the story for a more-robust U.S. response.

Technologies that are important for decarbonization — such as wind and solar energy, electric vehicles and electric heat pumps — are rapidly becoming cost-competitive with their fossil fuel competitors. The transition will also create new opportunities in the industries and careers of the future, including renewable energy, building retrofits and energy storage, the report finds

Decarbonization would also provide benefits to air and water quality, human health and ecosystems. Since 2010, the retirement of 270 coal plants has already helped avoid 7,000 premature deaths from air pollution in the United States. In the “all-in” scenario, the health benefits of improving air quality just by lowering coal and gas electricity generation would prevent an additional 5,700 premature deaths annually and have an economic benefit of $26 to $58 billion.

“Even without major technological advances, we can achieve carbon neutrality by 2050,” Joseph Stiglitz wrote in a separate opinion piece this week, stressing that living standards can and should improve with the climate-change fight. “But it won’t happen on its own, and it won’t happen if we just leave it to the market. It will happen only if we combine high levels of public investment with strong regulation and appropriate environmental pricing.”