After nearly a decade of waiting for two presidents and Congress to embrace the principles of the Kyoto Protocol, California decided to take unilateral action in 2006. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that would bring his state into near compliance with the international treaty's climate goals and timetables.
California's capping of greenhouse gas emissions has since been followed by other states.
These sub-national actions on climate change are far from insignificant. California alone emits 1.4 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, which would approximately tie it with France for 14th most if it were a country. But the state's emissions cap aims to bring those emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
State-level moves like California's may hold a valuable key to substantive action on climate change as huge, more diverse bodies like the U.S. Congress and the international negotiators meeting in Copenhagen next week struggle to reach agreements that can satisfy all involved.
During the long wait for national and international action, states have taken matters into their own hands, and their work has met with heartening success, says a new report from Environment America.
State-level actions will reduce emissions by around 536 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2020, more than is currently emitted annually by all but the eight top-emitting countries, the report's authors found. They didn't count future programs or projects; only those for which funding has already been allocated.
"America's state governments — where the bulk of on-the-ground energy policy decision-making is made in America's federal system of government — have taken the nation on a different course, one of innovative and increasingly aggressive action to reduce global warming pollution," the authors note.
Schwarzenegger, lauded the report, adding:
"Global warming is a global problem that requires a global solution, and California is proof that sub-national governments can make a difference."
Approximately half of all the emissions reductions the report anticipates by 2020 are attributable to state emissions caps. In addition to California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey have caps. These states combine to "produce nearly a quarter of America's economic output and 13 percent of its fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions," Environment America points out.
Regional emissions caps, like those set by the Northeast's 10-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, are also singled out by the report. The states involved in RGGI sell emission allowances, and the targeted emitters must participate if they want to continue to operate in the region. The initiative aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the region's power sector 10 percent by 2018. Two similar programs are being considered elsewhere in the country — the Western Climate Initiative and the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord.
Renewable portfolio standards, which require that a minimum percentage of electricity sold by utilities come from renewable sources, will contribute about an eighth of the reductions from state efforts by 2020, the report predicts. California recently raised its RPS to 33 percent by 2020, well above the EU's target of 20 percent by 2020 and RPS targets proposed by both climate bills now in Congress.
There is one obvious problem with such efforts, though, as with any effort that does not include unanimous global participation: the threat of leakage. If it costs business more to operate in the Northeast or in California because of state regulations, then it is at least possible that major emitters will move elsewhere, simply shifting the problem rather than solving it.
Smaller government entities, such as state, often have an advantage when it comes to pushing through real action. The more people who are involved in negotiations, whether they be countries, congressmen, businesses or citizens, the more compromises will be have to be made.
The momentum to action must start somewhere and, the report argues, action by states and other smaller actors can make it more likely consensus can be reached at higher levels, such as in Washington or Copenhagen.
The authors point to appliance energy standards, building energy codes and vehicle emission as areas in which a fairly straight line can be drawn from initial state initiatives to broader federal action.
States can likewise influence international action. Despite having a reputation for dragging its feet on climate change, argues the report, state legislation shows that many in the United States are willing to and have taken action, and President Obama and others should tout these sub-national actions as evidence of U.S. commitment to an international agreement at forums like Copenhagen.
"The impact of state-level actions to reduce global warming pollution is significant on a global scale" — both atmospherically and politically, it concludes.
Experiments in a 'Lab of Democracy'
California, with the country's largest economy and about a tenth of its population, has often led the rest of the country toward legislation — its 1998 smoking ban led to an eventual chain reaction through the states and even into foreign countries. Preempting the federal government again, the state's Air Resources Board released a draft of a cap-and-trade plan last week.
California also has taken a lead in developing completely new technologies that may help to make combating climate change easier.
Smart grid systems are being developed there. The state's public utilities regulators even approved a contract for PG&E to buy solar power beamed by radio frequency from satellites orbiting the Earth. The first volts would arrive in 2016.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt said his firm would also produce technology akin to Google Earth to help Californians understand the risks and effects of climate change in their state. That announcement came as Schwarzenegger officially endorsed a <a href="http://gov.ca.gov/press-release/13933/">climate adaptation strategy</a> for his state, which has already been experiencing problems associated with reduced snowpack, drought and increased wildfires. The strategy focuses on water supply and conservation.
Sub-national action can also transcend national borders.
The Western Climate Initiative under consideration by western U.S. states includes several Canadian provinces and — though more controversial — California has reached agreements with eight Brazilian states to allow greenhouse gas emitters in California to pay them for protecting standing forests. The state has reached a similar agreement with Indonesia and has agreements to work with Israel and the UK to cooperate on finding new ways to adapt to climate change.
Along with national leaders and international officials, Schwarzenegger will attend the Copenhagen summit next week.
(Photo: Executive Office of the President)