‘We Are Still In.’ Advocates press on

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News • Posted: Friday, September 14, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — State and local governments and businesses are shouting from the rooftops that America is still committed to climate action.

Despite the Trump administration’s proposals to withdraw from the U.N. Paris Agreement, roll back federal fuel economy rules, replace the Clean Power Plan for the power sector and weaken methane regulations for the oil and gas industry, environmental leaders are unbowed.

“It’s about not letting the president of the United States, as one example, say we are not in,” Mindy Lubber, president of the sustainable investor advocacy group Ceres, said at an event here organized to coincide with Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) Global Climate Action Summit.

The United States is still on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, two-thirds of the way to its Paris pledge, according to a reportreleased yesterday by the Rocky Mountain Institute and sponsored by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Separately, under the banner of “We Are Still In,” Ceres has collated more than 3,500 commitments from local and state governments, businesses, tribes, colleges, museums and religious groups totaling $9.4 trillion in economic activity. McDonald’s Corp., for example, is aiming for a 31 percent reduction from 2015 levels in emissions intensity in its food and packaging supply chains by 2030.

The overall message that has been coalescing since Trump announced his planned withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in June 2017 is that the United States is still capable of achieving ambitious emissions cuts via nonfederal policies and business decisions.

And even the loss of the federal government as a policy driver is something of a silver lining, as it has emboldened local governments and the private sector to step forward.

“I think this notion of a federal government and a gap is a common narrative,” said RMI Managing Director Paul Bodnar. “But in doing this work, I think we found something quite different, which is that if you don’t assume it’s the federal government’s job to take care of the problem, you find an amazingly powerful set of tools, and sometimes it’s just a matter of exposing people who have the power to do something about it.”

It’s a somewhat incongruous message coming from a group that is largely made up of Democrats who have championed federal authority. But it’s a shift that may persist into the next time Democrats are in control of the federal government.

“When I first got into doing environmental work back in the ’70s,” said California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, “everybody thought the answer was more federal action. And increasingly now, I think what we’re seeing is people saying: ‘Well, maybe not. Maybe we could actually do it better if the next level up would just get out of our way and maybe give us back some of our tax revenues.'”

Bodnar, a former Obama administration official who worked on a 2014 climate agreement with China that set the stage for the Paris Agreement, now sees states, cities and businesses taking the mantle of American climate leadership.

The Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan “was a good step,” he said Tuesday at a briefing on the report.

“But this is a real climate action plan for the United States,” he added. “This is a much more definitive map of who can do what. … This is just a different way of looking at the climate challenge and how to solve it than the notion that it’s for the federal government to lead and for everyone else to follow and implement.”

The RMI report projects that the United States will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.6 percent annually through 2025 and then 2.1 percent through 2030, due to slow-turnover sectors like transportation and buildings. That approaches the 2.3 percent annual rate that’s needed to reach 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

Not all projections are so rosy. Another study, released in June by the Rhodium Group, projects that the country is roughly on track to get halfway to its Paris pledge, or 12 to 20 percent below 2005 levels (Climatewire, June 28).

But according to environmentalists, states are moving the ball so far forward, particularly in the electricity sector, that a new climate-friendly federal administration will have to pick up significantly ahead of where the Obama administration left off.

RMI’s report finds that accelerated climate action within “realistic legal and political limits,” particularly on agriculture and other land use, would generate enough reductions to take the United States to 24 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Until then, the most significant federal contribution would be to tackle methane emissions, which contribute about 84 times as much of a warming effect as carbon dioxide in the short term.

“The one place where the new administration in 2020 could make a rapid difference would be in methane emissions from public lands,” former Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said Tuesday. That would take reductions to around 3 percent per year.

“You can’t get the 3 percent without federal re-engagement,” he said.

And although environmentalists and climate-friendly politicians wish things had gone differently on the federal level, the bootstrapping message ultimately is preferable to despair.

“The question is, do we just sit there and say, ‘You, the federal government, need to save us from this’?” said Lou Leonard, the World Wildlife Fund’s senior vice president and leader for climate and energy.

“Or is there a more empowering narrative that’s good for people to hear, that’s good for the companies that ultimately are the target of any regulation, policy or incentive, to show that there’s impactful things that they can do on their own?”