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State and Local Progress Can’t Outweigh White House Hostility to Climate Action

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While climate action by U.S. states and cities is paying off, with participating jurisdictions now representing nearly 70% of U.S. GDP and population and accounting for more than 50% of national emissions, even the biggest wins can’t make up for the lack of federal support under Donald Trump. 

But with a U-turn in national policy after next January’s presidential inauguration, there’s still a prospect that the United States could nearly halve its emissions by 2030, InsideClimate News reports [1]. [Set your countdown app! Just 271 more sleeps to the election, 349 to the inauguration. Ed.]

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InsideClimate’s roundup looks back at 2019 as a productive year for sub-national climate action in the U.S., with Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Puerto Rico, and Washington State following in the footsteps of California, the District of Columbia, and Hawaii and enacting 100% clean energy laws. Poised to join this coalition of the willing, which so far represents 16% of national electricity demand, are Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, Virginia, and Wisconsin, account for another 11%.

And then there was the ongoing success of the northeastern U.S. carbon market, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), whose current member states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) helped to cut emissions from electricity generation 47% since 2010.

“The revenue generated by the carbon market has also allowed the states to invest in energy efficiency and utility bill assistance for low-income families,” InsideClimate writes. “And the RGGI is set to expand this year, with New Jersey and Virginia [3] rejoining.” Pennsylvania [4] is also set to sign on for the first time—a very big deal, since the state’s electricity market “is larger than most of the other northeastern states combined.”

As well, “building on the success of RGGI, a dozen northeastern states hope to finalize plans in early 2020 to launch a Transportation Climate Initiative, tackling their now-largest source of carbon emissions—cars and trucks.”

Critically important, InsideClimate says both RGGI and TCI are bipartisan, with a number of Republic governors actively participating. 

But 2019 was also the year when it “became apparent how difficult it is for state and local players to fight the climate battle without support from the federal government,” ICN adds. While the Trump administration continued to wage war on California’s bid to fill the leadership void on climate, the fossil industry and its allies loomed large in state capitols across the country, wielding enough power that even Washington Governor and climate champion Jay Inslee [5] failed to secure sufficient support for a low-carbon fuel standard. Next door, “in an extraordinary standoff [6] in Oregon, Republican lawmakers left the state during the legislative session to deny the Democrats the quorum they needed to pass a carbon cap-and-trade bill.”

In the courts, the climate fight is far from over, writes InsideClimate, with two of the most “consequential” cases for 2020 being Trump’s efforts to deny California the right to set its own vehicle standards and “the states’ challenge of the Trump administration’s weak replacement for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, involving power plant emissions.”

That a quarter of Supreme Court judges are now Trump appointees bodes ill for climate action, writes InsideClimate, citing the opinion of legal scholars who expect the court will “strike down the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act”.

But gains have been made. With climate actions to date by “25 states, 534 cities, counties, and tribes, and thousands of businesses and organizations, emissions could fall 25% below 2005 levels by 2030,” InsideClimate writes, citing a report presented at last December’s UN climate conference in Madrid by the America’s Pledge coalition. With further state buy-in, and a White House “back in the game in 2021,” the United States “could cut emissions 49% by 2030, a level of ambition that would be in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping the global temperature increase below 1.5°C/2.7°F.

Casting the state, local, business, and individual climate achievers of 2019 as “troops holding ground in the difficult fight for climate progress, while waiting for reinforcements,” InsideClimate concludes that “the outcome of their efforts will depend on the political and legal battles in the year ahead—especially whether Donald Trump wins a second term as president.”