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America on the Move

State Leadership in the Fight Against Global Warming, and What it Means for the World

December 2009

Tony Dutzik, Rob Kerth, and Kari Wohlschlegel
Frontier Group

Rob Sargent
Environment America Research & Policy Center

Dan Jacobson
Environment California Research & Policy Center


As world leaders prepare to meet in Copenhagen to develop a plan of action to combat global warming, all eyes are on the United States. As the world's largest economy, the second-largest emitter of global warming pollution, and the nation responsible for more of the human-caused carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere than any other, the success of the Copenhagen negotiations—and the future of the planet—depend on American leadership.

The United States has gained a reputation, exacerbated during the presidency of George W. Bush, of obstructionism in the fight against global warming. But, over the last decade, 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 impact of state-level actions to reduce global warming pollution is significant on a global scale. A review of dozens of individual state policies, federal policies based on state models, and new federal policies in which states will have key roles in implementation suggests that state actions will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 536 million metric tons per year by 2020. That is more global warming pollution than is currently emitted annually by all but eight of the world's nations, and represents approximately 7 percent of U.S. global warming pollution in 2007.

America's clean energy revolution—led by the states—shows that the nation is ready to commit to the emission reductions science tells us are necessary to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. President Obama should build on these actions by working to forge a strong international agreement to address global warming during the Copenhagen talks.

In America's federal system of government, states matter.

  • State governments have an important—often primary—role in setting environmental and energy policy in the United States. States have the power to limit carbon dioxide emissions, to regulate electric and natural gas utilities, to adopt standards for the energy performance of buildings and equipment, to regulate land use and transportation policy and, on a limited basis, to establish emission standards for vehicles.
  • Over the past decade, states have begun to employ their power to reduce global warming pollution in a variety of ways. As “laboratories of democracy,” states have developed innovative policies to address global warming that have later been adopted by other states, or at the federal level.

Six U.S. states, and one U.S. region, have adopted enforceable caps on global warming pollution.

  • Six U.S. states—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey—have adopted binding caps on global warming pollution from their states' economies. Combined, these six states produce nearly a quarter of America's economic output and 13 percent of its fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions. If these six states were a separate country, they would rank as the world's fifth-biggest economy and seventhleading emitter of carbon dioxide.
  • Collectively, these six states have committed to reducing global warming pollution by approximately 13 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
  • Ten northeastern U.S. states have created a regional cap-and-trade system for emissions from electric power plants, and two other regions of the country are considering similar regional efforts.
  • State and regional emission caps will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 113 million metric tons below 2005 levels by 2020, and by approximately 270 million metric tons versus what emissions otherwise would have been under business-as-usual conditions.

Dozens of U.S. states have adopted clean energy policies designed to reduce global warming pollution.

Renewable electricity standards: 29 states have adopted minimum standards requiring a percentage of their electricity to come from renewable energy. These efforts will reduce global warming pollution by 79 million metric tons nationwide, in addition to the reductions achieved by emission caps.

Energy efficiency resource standards: 22 states have adopted policies that require a share of their energy needs to be met through energy efficiency improvements. These energy efficiency standards will deliver additional reductions of approximately 67 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2020.

Other actions: States have also pursued other innovative clean energy initiatives, such as low-carbon fuel standards designed to reduce the impact of transportation fuels on global warming, and “lead by example” efforts to reduce energy consumption and pollution from government activities.

State actions have triggered recent steps to reduce global warming pollution at the federal level.

  • The Clean Cars Program—originally adopted by 14 states and now in the process of adoption at the federal level—will dramatically reduce per-mile emissions of global warming pollution from vehicle tailpipes. The national program will reduce emissions by approximately 31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2020 in states without economy-wide emission caps.
  • The federal government is in the process of issuing new appliance and lighting efficiency standards, following up on standards adopted by 14 states. Should those standards take full advantage of the potential for energy efficiency improvements, they will reduce emissions by as much as 61 million metric tons per year by 2020.
  • States have also pioneered the adoption of strong building energy codes, which will become more widespread as a result of the recent federal economic recovery package. Improved building energy codes will reduce emissions by approximately 12 million metric tons per year by 2020, with those emission reductions locked in for decades to come.
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) includes several new federal energy efficiency initiatives in which state and local governments will have prominent roles in implementation. Programs already funded under the law can be expected to reduce emissions by approximately 10 million metric tons per year by 2020.

State efforts to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy are already making a material difference in reducing global warming pollution.

  • • Energy efficiency programs implemented by utilities, typically at the behest of state regulators, averted approximately 37 million metric tons of global warming pollution in 2007.
  • Similarly, the growth in renewable energy generation between 2004 and 2009—much of it driven by state policy initiatives, including renewable electricity standards, and federal tax incentives—averted the release of approximately 44 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2009.

America's track record of state energy policy innovation and the broad support of the American people for a transition to a clean energy economy suggest that America is ready to make a strong commitment to do its part to reduce global warming pollution.

  • President Obama should lead the way in negotiating an international agreement that will deliver sufficient emission reductions to prevent an increase in global average temperatures of more than 2° C (3.6° F) above pre-industrial levels—a commitment that would enable the world to avoid the most damaging impacts of global warming.
  • The United States should commit to emission reductions equivalent to a 35 percent reduction in global warming pollution from 2005 levels by 2020 and an 83 percent reduction by 2050, with the majority of emission reductions coming from the U.S. economy.
  • Individual states should move forward with effective implementation of policies already adopted while continuing to shift toward a clean energy economy and aggressively reducing global warming pollution.

Download: FULL REPORT: America on the Move: State Leadership in the Fight Against Global Warming, and What it Means for the World (PDF, 1.20 M)

Read More: Democracy, Economy, Energy, Environment, Jobs, United States, Americas, Global

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