Cities, States Claim They Can Make Major Climate Gains on Their Own

1 min
A new report concludes that cities and states can make significant headway toward climate goals on their own. (Craig Miller/KQED)

The much ballyhooed Global Climate Action Summit starts ramping up in San Francisco on Wednesday.

The focus is on how to harness the energy of cities, states and business to take the fight against climate change beyond the promises made in Paris three years ago. And at least one group says it can be done — almost.

It's been three years since the Paris climate accord, and the nations signed on to it are making slow progress putting it into effect.

But on the eve of the summit, a coalition of "real economy actors" known as America's Pledge released an eye-opening report. It projects that despite a retreat by the federal government, a serious push from the bottom-up could put the U.S. within reach of its Paris emissions goals by 2025.

"I think it just requires changing the way that we're thinking about this problem," says Paul Bodnar, managing director of Rocky Mountain Institute and a co-author of the report, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Bodnar and his co-authors conclude that current commitments from all levels of government and business are likely to reduce U.S. carbon emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, or about halfway to the national goal established in Paris.

Graphic: Population, GDP, GHG emissions
U.S. cities supporting the Paris climate agreement are equivalent to the world's third largest economy, according to the America's Pledge report. (America's Pledge)

The group lays out a "roadmap" of 10 strategies it describes as "high-impact, near-term," which is another way of saying they could yield a relatively quick bang for the buck. Some of them are already well along, such as the transition to renewable energy. Others, like the conversion of cars, trucks, and buses to electric power will be slower going.

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The authors say that "fully implementing" these strategies could get emissions down to 21 percent below 2005 levels, and that stretching a bit further could get the nation "within striking distance" of the 2025 target, which is at least 26 percent under 2005 levels.

Full implementation, however that's defined, might seem a tad optimistic and no one involved in the effort seems to be saying it'll be easy.

"The incumbent industries that are heavily invested in fossil (fuel) dependence are fighting back very hard," says Carl Pope, former Sierra Club chief and vice-chair of America's Pledge. And while he decries the current attempts by the Trump administration to revive the fossil fuel economy in the name of "energy dominance," Pope also points to opportunities for a high return on local investments, such as the greening of buildings.

"I think innovation in construction and building design is the place where we need thousands of builders and architects and construction firms and laborers and unions working together, to figure out how we can make housing as climate-friendly as electricity is already becoming," he says.

Bodnar, who admits to being surprised by his own findings, says it's natural to look to nations to tackle a problem like global warming.

"But in fact, what I think what we learned from this exercise is that it's more powerful to think of what state, local, and corporate leadership can accomplish," he says.

The study's release comes just two days after Gov. Jerry Brown, a co-chair of the summit, signed a bill setting California on a course toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, and one day after Brown's executive order aiming for a carbon-neutral state by the same date.

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