Is it time for a Plan B in 2011? National Climate Action Without Climate Legislation

Welcome to 2011! With the New Year comes a new Congress and a chronic disillusionment for the passage of any comprehensive climate and energy legislation. With cap-and-trade off the table, I believe it’s time to consider a Plan B to lower GHGs through an existing patchwork of legal authority at all levels of government — including local governments, which play a key role.

Examining the Puzzle Pieces

As the world emerges from international climate talks with the Cancun Agreements, the United States still does not have a clearly defined strategy for how to meet our international emissions targets here at home.  However, the pieces for a national strategy exist, despite the absence of a clearly articulated plan on how those pieces best fit together.

EPA Action Via Federal Authority over GHGs

In the 2007 landmark case, Massachusetts v. EPA, The Supreme Court found that GHGs are pollutants covered under the Clean Air Act – this means the EPA currently has the authority to regulate global warming pollution today. To date, the EPA has been moving forward with regulations affecting tailpipes and smokestacks.

For cars and trucks, the EPA is regulating how the cars are built – not how they are driven.  The current regulations include standards for fuel efficiency and GHG emissions that begin with the model year 2012. Other regulations cover large power plants, manufacturers and oil refiners. Regulating this group of global warming pollution sources is expected to affect 70% of national GHG emissions. For more on the EPA’s approach and how state and regional actions relate, please see the World Resources Institute’s recent report.

The EPA’s actions have already come under congressional attack – from both Houses of Congress and from both sides of the political aisle.  Attempts to either limit, or outright strip the EPA of its authority over GHGs is expected to only increase with the next Congress.  Even if Congress manages to strip the EPA of its existing ability to protect the public from global warming pollution – there is action happening at the regional, state and local levels.

Regional Collaboration Among States

States are banding together to address climate change at the regional level, and are at various stages of development and implementation in their efforts to address climate change.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), made up of 10 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, is the nation’s first mandatory cap and trade program, and has been in operation since January of 2009. RGGI seeks to lower CO2 emissions from power plants 10% below 2009 levels by 2018. Funding generated by the cap-and-trade program is being aimed toward benefiting consumers and spurring jobs through investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other clean technologies.

The Western Climate Initiative (WCI), made up of seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, is working to devise a coordinated approached to plan and implement a set of policies to address climate change. WCI’s stated goal is to reduce GHGs by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

The Midwest Greenhouse Gas Accord includes nine U.S. states and two Canadian provinces with a stated GHG reduction goal of 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The group is currently reviewing recommendations and considering next steps.

For updates on what is happening at the state and regional level, please see the Georgetown Climate Center’s webpage.

State Action

States are moving forward to address climate change as well. California most recently made waves in the news when the Air Resources Board approved a statewide cap-and-trade program that aims to begin to meet statewide goals to reduce GHGs 15 percent by 2008 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 1990 levels by 2050. Additionally, other states have GHG targets, and they are requiring their utilities to hit certain minimum goals for efficiency and renewables, implementing standards for low carbon fuels and vehicle miles traveled, and addressing building codes.

For more on regional and state level action, please see The Center for Climate Strategies.

Local Government Action

Local governments represent a key part of the puzzle for lowering GHGs in the United States.  If we are going to meet our goal of keeping global warming within the widely accepted range of 2°C – cities and counties will be absolutely critical actors because of local powers over infrastructure decisions. According to a recent study published in the journal Science, the bulk of emissions we can expect between now and 2050 will come from GHG emitting sources yet to be built.

Local governments have tremendous powers over land use, transportation, and buildings.  According to Architecture 2030,  “In 2009, 77% of all the electricity produced at power plants in the U.S. was used to just operate buildings.”  And according to the Growing Cooler Report, “Transportation accounts for a full third of CO2 emissions in the United States, and that share is growing, rising from 31 percent in 1990 to 33 percent today.” For a national strategy to move forward, local action will be a key part of the solution.  To learn more about local government climate action, please see ICLEI USA.

Martin Chávez/Executive Director, ICLEI USA.

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