Blog Post

How State-Level Action on Carbon Emissions Stacks Up

Dec 6, 2018 | Marc Hafstead

© filo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Arnold Schwarzenegger made headlines earlier this week at the COP24 global climate talks in Poland, saying “Every time you talk about America, you’re right when you say that our leadership in Washington is a little bit backwards. But you’re wrong when you say that America dropped out of the Paris agreement. Because if you look a little bit beyond Washington . . . you will see all the extraordinary work that is going on [at the] state and city level in America.”

He’s not wrong—we should be encouraged by action at the subnational level. In the recent midterm elections, voters in Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, and Michigan said yes to pro-climate candidates and/or initiatives aimed at renewable and clean energy. And despite the defeat of another proposed carbon tax policy in Washington state, momentum still exists for efforts to price carbon in many states.

At COP24, members of the “We Are Still In” campaign—a group of 10  states, 280  cities, and a number of universities and businesses—will continue to show American support for the Paris Agreement. Still, for all this optimism and support from the state and local levels, significantly reducing US emissions will require federal action.

The 10 states in the We Are Still In campaign (including Minnesota and North Carolina, which are unlikely to pass carbon pricing policies anytime soon) account for less than 20 percent of US carbon dioxide emissions—and only 7 percent of emissions from burning coal.

On their own, to meet the Paris targets without emissions reductions in other states, these 10 states would have to nearly decarbonize completely by 2025. We also need to consider that the lowest-cost emissions reductions—transitioning from coal generation to natural gas or renewable energy sources like wind and solar—exist in the states least likely to act on climate. The states taking action on climate today have relatively clean electricity sectors and therefore their reductions must come from less cost-effective sources, such as the transportation sector, which is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonize in the near term.

State action can only achieve so much when it comes to reducing US carbon emissions; federal action is necessary to achieve cost-effective emissions reductions on par with the Paris Agreement.

The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.