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California Governor Jerry Brown, addressing a November 29 meeting on climate change in San Francisco,  remarked that China’s efforts to put more electric vehicles on its roadways will likely help California push the American auto industry toward building more zero-emission cars.

The comment reflected Brown’s commitment to lowering emissions from cars and trucks in the U.S.’s most populous state, despite Trump administration efforts to weaken fuel economy standards, and despite resistance from automakers. It also showed Brown’s acknowledgement of China as a global leader in the fight against climate change at a time of retreat by Washington.

And finally, it reflects Brown’s commitment that the U.S., with a strong push from the Golden State, can continue to be a world player in the transition to a low-carbon future.

In July, Brown and New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg launched the America’s Pledge initiative. Coming about a month after President Trump announced the U.S. would abandon the 2015 Paris Agreement, the initiative they are co-chairing aims to take stock of actions cities and states and businesses and other institutions take to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and of the potential for meeting the American pledge in the face of little or no climate action by the Trump administration.

“The group of American cities, states, and businesses who remain committed to the Paris Agreement represents a bigger economy than any nation outside the U.S. and China,” Bloomberg said in releasing the report during the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany on November 11. “Together they are helping deliver on the promise of the agreement and ensuring the U.S. remains a global leader in the fight against climate change. In Paris, the U.S. pledged to measure and report our progress reducing emissions alongside every other nation. Through America’s Pledge, we’re doing just that, and we’re going to continue to uphold our end of the deal, with or without Washington.”

Current trends positive, but not sufficient on their own

At the ClimateTECH meeting in San Francisco hosted by The New York Times, Brown acknowledged the daunting challenge of shifting the globe’s economies away from fossil fuels: He likened it to converting “pagan Rome to Christian Europe but not in a period of 400 or 500 years. We’ve got to do it in the next 20 years … and I don’t think it’s being taken seriously.”

The first report of the America’s Pledge initiative offers a snapshot of the scope and scale of actions now underway and independent of Washington. It also examines trends fueling the move toward a low-carbon economy, and the prospects those trends may continue.

On #climate, states and cities press forward as federal government backs off. Click To Tweet

Among encouraging signs the report lists is that costs of solar power and of vehicle batteries have both dropped by about 80 percent since 2010. It points out also that U.S. net GHG emissions fell by 11.5 percent from 2005 to 2015, a decade in which the economy grew by 15 percent.

Despite these and other positive trends, the report makes it clear that current efforts alone cannot achieve the pledge the U.S. made in Paris in 2015: Reduce nationwide GHG emissions to 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.  Add to that the additional challenge of achieving further reductions heading toward mid-century.

‘Critical nature of federal engagement’

“We cannot underscore strongly enough the critical nature of federal engagement to achieve the deep decarbonization goals the U.S. must undertake after 2025,” the report says.

Nevertheless, progress in the short-term will, in fact, depend on states, cities, businesses and other organizations outside the federal government. Groups such as the National League of Cities have condemned President Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Agreement.

“President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement is a flagrant disregard for the safety and prosperity of American cities who are already dealing with the devastating effects of climate change,” NLC President Matt Zone said back in June. “With or without federal support, local action is being taken to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and create a more sustainable future.”

And the U.S. Conference of Mayors this fall expressed its disappointment at President Trump’s and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s efforts to scrap the EPA Clean Power Plan rule. “Mayors will continue to lead the way and we will work with the private sector to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in order to remain economically competitive and energy independent,” the organization said in a statement. “Despite this setback … the nation’s mayors will continue to stand for what’s right. We will redouble our efforts and broaden our partnerships with the business community to fill the leadership void as we work to effectively mitigate the impact of climate change and reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

The America’s Pledge Phase 1 report cites the power of coalitions to drive actions, among them the Under2Coalition for states, the Global Covenant of Mayors for cities, and We Mean Business for businesses. It also cites local efforts to strive to achieve the U.S.’s December 2015 Paris pledge, including U.S. Climate Mayors, U.S. Climate Alliance, and We Are Still In.

The numbers behind the promised efforts

The potential for local and regional action is enormous. The combined GDP of U.S. states and cities saying they are committed to the Paris Agreement is $10.1 trillion – larger than 195 of the 197 Parties to the Framework Convention – and larger than the economies of Japan and Germany combined. (The total U.S. GDP is $18.6 trillion, China’s is $11.2 trillion, Japan’s is $4.9 trillion, and Germany’s is $3.5 trillion)

At least 20 U.S. states and 110 cities have set official targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the report states. Some of the targets, such as those set by California and New York, are as ambitious as the most aggressive targets set by national signatories to the Paris Agreement. On the business side, more than 1,300 companies with U.S. operations – collectively responsible for 0.9 gigatons annually of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions – have voluntarily adopted targets for reducing emissions.

Pledge report map
Source: America’s Pledge on Climate report.

Here are a few highlights from the report that point to the potential for making progress independent of the federal government:

  • States and cities supporting the Paris Agreement are home to 159 million Americans, or 49 percent of the total population. Those states and cities account for 35 percent of U.S. GHG emissions.
  • States and cities that have at least some targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are home to 182 million Americans, or 56 percent of the total population. Those states and cities account for 40 percent of U.S. GHG emissions.
  • Thirty-eight states have renewable energy portfolio standards or goals.
  • Twenty-four states integrate transport and land-use in comprehensive plans.
  • Twenty-three states have dedicated funding streams for public transit.
  • Forty-one cities have a program for sharing cars, and 38 have one for sharing bikes.
  • Thirty-five cities have goals or are in the process of setting goals for energy savings.
  • Two hundred and forty businesses have renewable energy targets.
  • Two hundred and thirteen businesses have adopted corporate energy efficiency improvements for their buildings.

At the ClimateTECH meeting in San Francisco, Governor Brown offered his vision of where other states in the U.S. can go in coming decades.

“We are already almost at 50-percent renewable electricity, right now in California … and 100 percent in 2040 is not out of the question at all,” he said. “It depends on storage, it depends on a regional grid. But California is actively pursuing an energy policy that we can sustain in the face of federal opposition.”

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