California leads subnational efforts to curb climate change

Local authorities and companies are crucial if global carbon-emissions targets are to be met

SUPPOSE Britain’s prime minister ordered civil servants to make the world’s fifth-biggest economy fully carbon-neutral by 2045, and thereafter to extract more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits. In a sense that is what happened on September 10th, when Governor Jerry Brown of California—whose economy last year overtook Britain’s—inked an executive order mandating state agencies to begin such preparations.

He had just signed into law a bill setting the same 2045 deadline for the state’s complete transition to renewable and other zero-carbon electricity. The bill could be revoked by a future legislature, and the order by Mr Brown’s successor. But the Golden State’s inveterate environmentalism makes that unlikely. Californians, the outgoing governor has made clear, remain committed to the Paris agreement of 2015, in which countries vowed to keep global warming “well below” 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels, and ideally to no more than 1.5°C.

Days earlier, in Bangkok, President Donald Trump’s administration had been trying to scupper the Paris deal. Mr Trump plans to quit it as soon as rules permit (which happens to be a day after he faces re-election in 2020). For now, however, his negotiators still attend—and disrupt—pow-wows like this one, aimed at making abstract Paris goals a reality. This time they refused even to discuss aid for developing countries’ efforts to cut emissions and adapt to floods, droughts and other perils of climate change. At home Mr Trump also wants to make it easier for energy firms to leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

America is the most unruly of the Paris agreement’s 197 signatories. But many others look half-hearted at best. The current set of “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), as countries’ pledges are known, put Earth on course for 3°C of warming. Instead of strengthening their carbon-cutting targets, as the agreement envisaged, some countries want to weaken them. Australia’s resources minister, Matt Canavan, recently declared that NDCs’ voluntary nature “doesn’t actually bind us to anything in particular”. No big advanced economy attacked American penny-pinching in Bangkok. Irked by the lack of progress, on September 10th António Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, unveiled plans for a big climate summit of heads of state next year.

National governments’ foot-dragging has raised the profile of local initiatives. California’s heft means few are as momentous as Mr Brown’s. But taken together, they are increasingly viewed as essential to the Paris treaty’s survival. Many American cities and states are turning to renewables for ever more of their electricity, imposing tougher energy-efficiency standards on buildings, or electrifying public buses. That includes even Republican-led ones prone to playing down the dangers of climate change. In Illinois the Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, signed a bill mandating a sharp rise in the state’s solar capacity, and earmarking $750m for job training in clean-energy industries. Utah is toying with a carbon tax.

Local efforts have also proliferated in countries still hewing to the Paris accord. From Aachen in Germany to Zapopan in Mexico, cities are pledging emissions reductions. In August, 19 cities, including Paris and Tokyo, vowed to make all new buildings carbon-neutral from 2030, and to retrofit others to meet the same standard by 2050. In May London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, promised to make the British capital zero-carbon by mid-century.

Tales of the city

This year 620 cities and 122 regions have reported climate actions to CDP, a watchdog. More than 800 firms worth almost $17trn have joined the We Mean Business coalition to reduce their carbon footprint. In all, the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA), a UN-run repository, lists more than 12,500 pledges by 2,500 cities, 209 regions, over 2,100 firms and nearly 500 investors.

Many of these pledgers have descended on San Francisco for a three-day summit organised by Mr Brown that started on September 12th. The aim is partly to help the formal Paris process keep up steam ahead of a crucial meeting in Poland in December, when the agreement’s rulebook is supposed to be finalised. But the meeting will also showcase what is being done and compare the best methods to monitor, report and reconcile municipal and regional progress.

In principle, subnational governments could play a big role in combating climate change. This is particularly true of cities. Roughly half of the world’s population lives in them, and that proportion is forecast to rise to 70% by mid-century. Urban areas consume two-thirds of the world’s energy. They are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as flooding, so the cost of inaction is all too tangible. A survey by 100 Resilient Cities, a network of conurbations, found that climate change is the third-biggest concern among its members, behind inequality and ageing infrastructure. Cities also stand to benefit from climate-friendlier policies. New research presented in San Francisco by the C40 group of big cities and the Global Covenant of Mayors, which groups more than 9,000 municipalities, finds that climate policies such as boosting energy efficiency and decarbonising public transport and power generation could create 14m new jobs and prevent 1.3m premature pollution-related deaths a year by 2030.

So local climate activism is a cause for joy. Just how much joy, though, depends on what all their policymaking adds up to. So far the answer appears to be: not a lot.

A hill of beans

Angel Hsu of Yale University and colleagues have sifted quantifiable pledges made by nearly 5,900 cities and 76 regions, home to about one in six humans, as well as by more than 2,100 companies with combined annual revenues of $21trn. After stripping out overlaps—how far Seattle’s ambition is embedded in Washington state’s, say, or Microsoft’s in Seattle’s—they found that individual commitments add up to reductions in annual carbon-dioxide emissions of between 1.5bn and 2.2bn tonnes by 2030, compared with current policies—or 200m-700m tonnes relative to what could be expected under the current NDCs (see chart 1). Compare that with the 52bn tonnes emitted globally each year, expected to rise to 59bn tonnes by 2030 on current trends. California’s latest measures would bring only marginal improvement, as it had already pledged to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

Other studies have made similarly underwhelming findings. Bean-counters at America’s Pledge, a response to Mr Trump’s carbon-cuddling led by Mr Brown and Mike Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, calculate that 155 American companies which have joined 115 cities and 20 states in the effort would cut just 26m tonnes of CO² from current emissions trajectories over the next seven years. Last year the Global Covenant of Mayors estimated that they could curb emissions by 1.3bn tonnes by 2030.

Indeed, many commitments seem little more than attempts to signal virtue, perhaps to green-minded constituents. Philip Drost of the UN Environment Programme says many are “selfie initiatives” that are thin on specifics. Of the 220 pledges like the Covenant of Mayors or the C40, just 48 have adopted quantifiable goals, according to the UN’s annual “Emissions Gap” report; 165 lack clear mechanisms for monitoring and reporting progress.

Even numerical targets may reflect merely what would have been done anyway. Mr Brown would doubtless have enacted California’s clean-energy mandates without America’s Pledge. Worse, local actions can have adverse unintended consequences. After Shougang Corporation, a Chinese steelmaker, in 2010 began moving its dirty business from Beijing to Hebei, the capital’s emissions of CO² fell by 7.6m tonnes over the next five years, estimates a recent paper by Yuli Shan of Tsinghua University and colleagues. But Hebei’s ballooned by 87m tonnes, in part because Hebei’s energy production is much more carbon-intensive.

The record of subnational action, then, looks patchy. What about future prospects? Helen Mountford of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, an independent body of experts, believes that local action could eventually provide “cover, inspiration and a nudge” to national governments. It may also encourage other localities to step up their efforts for fear of being labelled laggards. On September 12th in San Francisco 16 new places joined the Under2 Coalition, bringing to 222 the membership of the biggest of the international undertakings, which covers a fifth of the world’s population and two-fifths of its economy.

The Under2 Coalition wants to reach 250 members in the next few years. If the dozen or so biggest initiatives can be scaled up as their backers hope, the resulting emissions cuts could total between 15bn and 21bn tonnes of CO² by 2030, Ms Hsu and her co-authors estimate. That would be enough to set the world on a path to meeting the Paris goal, perhaps even the 1.5°C aspiration.

Yet other forces are pulling in the opposite direction. For all the power of peer pressure, places that have resisted joining such forums are by definition harder to attract. The number of jurisdictions reporting to CDP continues to expand, but growth has slowed (see chart 2). And, as Mr Drost points out, “the more ambitious an initiative gets, the less attractive it becomes to many members.”

The NAZCA database brims with promises but it is hard to tell the serious from the flaky. Kevin Kennedy of the World Resources Institute, a think-tank, with headquarters in Washington, DC, notes another pitfall. Mobilisation in some quarters might demobilise others, who conclude they can free-ride on the climate-champions’ efforts. If a carmaker “is selling more electric cars in California, it can sell more gas-guzzlers in Texas” and still meet national fuel-efficiency standards for the whole fleet, he remarks.

Echoing Mr Guterres, Mr Kennedy says that averting catastrophic climate change requires a concerted global effort involving those currently unwilling to act. That almost certainly requires top-down diktats. Even Mr Brown would admit that California’s sterling environmental record stems less from its citizens’ inherent green-heartedness, than from a century of state-level regulation to keep its air and water clean.

All this hints at the paradox of bottom-up climate policies. Places like California show that national action is not a prerequisite for local activism, but “mayors will move faster and more efficiently if they are supported by national governments,” concedes Mark Watts of the C40. Robust national action makes the grassroots sort less necessary. In the end, Mr Brown says, the climate challenge cannot be solved by cities, states and corporations alone. “It is not an either-or,” he says. “National leaders must get off their dime.”

Correction (September 18th 2018): The original version of this article said that 11 cities had recently joined the Under2 Coalition. The group is for states and regions, 16 of which joined. This has been corrected.


Original article on The Economist:

Page Navigation