Subnational climate action goes global – with California leading

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California's coastline

Despite disinterest on the part of the Trump administration, US leadership in global climate governance continues to be advanced in a patchwork fashion. This is due largely to muscular moves by a pastiche of cities, states, corporations and civil society entities committed to ambitious climate action plans that leverage local insights and mandates. Though the patchwork may not fully compensate for uncertainties in terms of federal climate policy, the idea of bottom-up commitments that are grounded in local concerns and opportunities may ultimately lead to a more durable, less volatile direction for at least a broad swath of US climate action for years to come.

This dynamic was on display this September in San Francisco, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) co-chaired by California Governor Jerry Brown, UN climate action envoy Michael Bloomberg, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, Mahindra Group Chair Anand Mahindra, Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, and UN youth envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake. The summit was designed to be more than a California-centric affair, instead oriented at laying the groundwork for a new climate action model in which sub-national actors and actions could be counted, aggregated, and ultimately packaged together in a way worthy of engagement with international counterparts. 

The summit largely succeeded on that front, and though climate and clean energy were hardly on the mind of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis when he famously described states as “laboratories of democracy,” state-level policy innovations continue to accelerate in these domains.

California’s energy transformation is real and here to stay

A number of policy announcements were made last week during GCAS that signal an ambitious decarbonization course for California, the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Receiving the most attention was Governor Brown’s signing of SB 100, a bill that sets for California a target of 100% “clean energy” by 2045. The bill also revises the existing renewable portfolio standard to intensity intermediate targets, setting a 60% renewable energy goal by 2030. What this means in practice is that there is significant policy “pull” for additional renewable energy (wind and solar, but, in accordance with the state’s renewable energy definitions, not necessarily hydro, nuclear or other zero carbon sources), coupled with a larger policy-implied role for these other clean energy technologies in the later years (2030 to 2045). In other words, California expects wind and solar (and batteries) to play an outsized role to 2030, but holds out a significant role for other zero carbon technologies to help the state reach its more challenging mid-century goal.

Although a broad coalition of legislators backed the 100% clean energy target, it is worth noting that California is hardly monolithic in its geography, its demographics, nor its political economy as one moves across the state. As highlighted in a joint event hosted by the Atlantic Council and the Speaker of the California State Assembly in San Francisco, California is host to some of the most affluent and innovative communities in the United States eager to profit from the next generation of low-carbon technologies. However, it is also home to regions such as the Central Valley, a major American breadbasket that nonetheless suffers from significant poverty and the worst air quality in the United States. 

California is also home to the most military bases and personnel of any US state, many of which serve as showcases for advanced energy technologies that are already saving costs and lives for the US armed forces as it seeks to improve the performance and security of its installation and operational energy footprint. From Assembly districts that span deserts to those that cover coastlines, forests, and vast expanses of cropland, the state can in some senses be seen as a microcosm of the diverse economic and political interests across the United States. It is striking, then, that a relatively bipartisan consensus on climate risk and clean energy opportunities has arisen in California, but not the nation at large.

The costs of the energy transformation and policy decisions

More significant in ambition, though less binding and durable, was an executive order signed by Governor Brown setting the aspiration of complete, state-wide carbon neutrality by 2045. This vastly expands the scope of the aforementioned 2045 clean energy target, as the electricity sector accounts for only 16% of the state’s total emissions, while the executive order also encompasses the other 84%.

California policymakers should be applauded for making SB 100 focused on clean, rather than renewable, energy, as this allows for a more diverse set of tools for decarbonizing the electricity sector, from hydro to nuclear to entirely new technologies. The executive order is also a useful indicator of the state’s direction of travel across all economic sectors, even if strategies for achieving total carbon neutrality will require massive political will and continued technological innovation. Together, the policies signal that the state is more focused on the vexing challenge of climate change rather than boosting individual industries, and will hopefully help to minimize costs as it works towards its ambitious goal. Recent research out of MIT only reinforces this point.

While the overall costs of meeting this target will remain highly uncertain for the foreseeable future, further policy choices by California and neighboring states will help determine the cost trajectory for years to come. For example, the legislature also defeated a proposal, backed by Governor Brown, that would have led to a larger integrated Western regional grid, in an effort to maximize efficiencies and reduce costs. This would, for example, more easily allow excess renewable generation at certain times of the day to be exported to surrounding areas, and for key assets in surrounding states (such as Arizona’s own solar panels or its Palo Verde nuclear facility) to help California meet periods of high demand.

California will also have to reconcile the interaction effects between the technology-agnostic approach implied by its newest long-term clean energy target and a number of other, more prescriptive policies in the state, such as a new rooftop solar mandate for new home construction starting in 2020. The state-wide carbon neutrality target will also intensify focus on what role additional electrification of sectors beyond power, such as transport and some parts of industry, might play in the coming years. Electrification of transport is particularly critical in the short to mid term, as California’s grid is rapidly becoming one of the cleanest in the nation (and thus there are significant decarbonization benefits in using electricity as fuel rather than gasoline or diesel), but also because a growing fleet of electric vehicless could serve - if properly orchestrated - as a fleet of mobile batteries with role to play in balancing the intermittency of the state’s wind and solar.

A number of other bills aimed at better integrating electric vehicles into long-term infrastructure and climate policy planning also passed in California’s legislative session, which could assist in meeting the state’s decarbonization goals. However, a paradigm shift in transport decarbonization policy will eventually be needed. Over time, policy must move away from supporting the deployment of yet more electric vehicles to instead incentivizing electric (or zero-carbon) vehicle miles traveled. This acknowledges the growing role of ride-sharing and transport network companies, and also begins to prepare for a day when vast quantities of vehicles on the road, many of them electric and driverless, are managed by a handful of major fleet operators. Policy could then encourage these operators to make minor changes to the systems or algorithms that control their fleets in order to yield potentially major climate and energy benefits.

State-level policy innovation: broad and growing

California is not the only place in North America advancing an ambitious climate and clean energy policy agenda. It has joined with Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, as well as the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, to form a new “Pacific Coast Collaborative”. The Collaborative will seek to leverage shared goals, policy approaches, and physical infrastructure to accelerate progress on a number of climate and environmental policy fronts. Similarly, the US Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition of 17 US governors committed to climate action. The organization is exploring a number of areas, from standards harmonization to sharing best practices on innovative tools such as green banks that can reduce the cost and increase the ambition of state-level climate approaches. The Alliance is also pursuing, alongside Canada and Mexico, a goal of seeing 50% of all power generation in participating states be zero-carbon by the year 2025.

Yet other states and cities have joined existing initiatives related to climate involving international partners beyond North America. Connecticut, New York, Minnesota and Hawaii joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a new endeavor launched by a group of countries including France, Finland and the UK at last year’s UN climate conference in Bonn. The Netherlands, together with Hawaii, Virginia, and Seattle, launched the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification (OA Alliance), a coordinating institution for actions aimed at protecting oceans from chemical impacts of rising global carbon dioxide concentrations. And in the growing domain of so-called “green finance”, Australia’s Local Government Super and the Luxembourg Green Exchange joined the State Treasurers of California, New Mexico and Rhode Island, along with a number of city and county authorities to pledge that all bonds financing long-term infrastructure and capital projects would henceforth be structured as “green bonds” that address environmental impacts and climate risk.

Global consequences

The ultimate impact – both on the climate and on American politics – of this budding “climate policy federalism” remains to be seen. It is in many cases a reaction to gaps being left by the current US administration, rather than a coherent and logical shift in the way that the US economy can best decarbonize. But it is, at least for the foreseeable future, the new reality of US climate action, and as such deserves to be taken seriously and to have commitments and targets both counted and also held to account. In a best case scenario, the thousand flowers currently blooming via new subnational actions and networks will push the United States far in meeting its own Paris climate commitments and, in the process, give negotiators leverage to continue pressing for credible follow-through by key countries such as China, rather than allowing a brief moment of American climate recalcitrance in Washington provide cover for backsliding elsewhere. In this sense, if not in many others, US mayors and governors may be acting locally but are advancing diplomacy on a global scale.