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How the U.S. can achieve climate commitments

This article originally appeared at WRI.

As wildfires ravage the western United States and communities from the gulf to the mid-Atlantic recover from destructive hurricanes, the focus is on the federal government to act on climate, including the current debates in Congress on major infrastructure investments.

This focus is certainly appropriate — the national government plays a critical role in setting regulations, creating strong incentives, and spurring innovation. But it is incomplete. Attention must also be paid to state and local governments, businesses, civil society, and other non-federal climate leaders who play a critical role in driving and implementing climate progress.

There’s no time to lose: The U.S. must move as rapidly and equitably as possible to reach its Nationally Determined Contribution commitment to reduce emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. To have the best possible chance of achieving this transformational change on an unprecedented time frame, we need an all-of-society approach that leverages the strengths of subnational and national actors alike.

To facilitate this kind of approach, a new report from America Is All In — a coalition of cities, states, tribal nations, businesses and civil society committed to climate action (with analytical support from World Resources Institute, the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, and RMI) — provides a clear roadmap for subnational and federal actors to work together.

Blueprint 2030 outlines actions that can lock in emissions reductions and ensure the U.S. meets or even exceeds its emissions target. And, because actions taken across society are reinforcing, they can help accelerate climate ambition and make changes more durable.

What can we learn from the new report?

The report’s overall finding is encouraging: An all-of-society strategy can indeed reduce greenhouse gas emissions 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, meeting the U.S. climate target.

Much of this reduction will be driven by a decarbonized power sector. On its own the sector would see an emissions decline of 83 percent (relative to 2005 levels) through strong mandates and investments to ensure rapid deployment of clean electricity generation and a phaseout of coal. The transportation and buildings sectors would also see major reductions by 2030 (39 percent and 26 percent, respectively), largely through electrification and efficiency.

However, while the analysis shows that achieving the U.S. emissions target is possible, doing so will require concerted and sustained action across all emissions sectors and levels of society. Beyond the federal government’s contributions of investing in infrastructure, financing and incentives, and research and development, it can set national standards that build on bottom-up momentum.

Meanwhile, state governments can push ambition, set the pace of emissions standards and incentivize efficiency, electrification and other critical solutions. Local government can accelerate this ambition and new ideas can be piloted via community action, codes and zoning, while businesses can work on shifting markets and developing and deploying new technologies. Finally, faith, cultural, health and education institutions can mobilize the public, build support for bold action, create demand for new technologies and approaches, and hold government and business accountable.

What are the additional benefits of an all-in strategy?

An all-in climate strategy would not just deliver climate benefits and ensure the U.S. does its part to avoid the worst consequences of the global climate crisis, but would also deliver major public health, economic and ecosystem benefits.

These gains include more livable communities, as achieving climate ambition in the transportation and buildings sectors — paired with improved land use planning — can produce more equitable access to good housing, jobs and transportation with reduced pollution and improved health.

Additionally, affordable, reliable, resilient and renewable energy can be realized by achieving climate targets in the power and industrial sectors. A cleaner economy will also require innovation in a new generation of clean fuels to manufacture low-emissions goods and materials, resulting in improved health outcomes, high-quality job creation and renewed economic development. 

Major progress in the natural and working lands sector to enhance the national carbon sink by 2030 will result in healthier forests, wetlands and other local ecosystems. Achieving these goals will allow these ecosystems to continue providing critical services such as food and materials production and clean water, while increasing community resilience to climate impacts and storing increasing amounts of carbon.

In addition to providing health, economic and ecosystem benefits, actions taken at all levels of society can also ensure more rapid and durable progress. The reinforcing nature of these actions can drive virtuous cycles of policy adoption and resulting progress. For example, civil society, corporate actors and local governments can all play a role in creating strong market signals for increased deployment of zero-emissions vehicles. These strong market signals reinforce state and federal policies and push them to go even further, in turn making it increasingly easier for other actors to advocate for and deploy such vehicles.

Actions taken by one actor can influence and reinforce the actions taken by actors at other levels of society.

How can this strategy become a reality?

Whether federal and non-federal actors across the U.S. can come together to drive this change is by no means certain, but the roadmap for how each actor can do their part is relatively clear. A summary of cross-cutting, breakthrough policies, which are expanded on and explored in more detail in the report, are shown in the table below:

All-In Strategy Breakthrough Policies

Adoption and implementation of the actions highlighted in the new report will need to accelerate dramatically in the coming years. Current momentum gives cause for hope.

In the last few years, climate ambition in the U.S. has largely been driven by non-federal actors providing models for scaled up ambition and by limited federal support. Building on this, the ongoing congressional budget reconciliation legislation involving major federal infrastructure investment is an opportunity for federal support to accelerate and influence climate ambition across society.

Recent actions by nonfederal actors are also illustrative of the level of climate ambition envisioned in the report.

For example, zero emission vehicle standards have been adopted or accelerated by states, such as California’s and Massachusetts’ commitment to reach 100 percent zero emission vehicle car sales by 2035. Hawaii and Illinois are pursuing 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045 and 2050, respectively. Cities such as New Orleans have launched programs to reduce the energy burden on lower income residents by offering solar options for no money down, no credit requirement solar leases or traditional financing for eligible homeowners. And Amazon, Google and Walmart are among the major corporate buyers that have used renewable power access as a siting condition for new facilities, making access to renewable power an economic development issue.

What’s needed now is more transformational action — and faster. The federal government can’t achieve this transformation on its own, nor can states, cities and businesses. However, an all-in strategy can leverage the comparative advantages and synergies of actors on multiple scales to drive rapid and lasting change.

There’s no time to waste. Leveraging their collective strengths, actors across society have the capacity to achieve the country’s climate ambitions.

Source: GreenBiz