Dozens of States Want to Keep America’s Broken Climate Promise

States still aiming to meet U.S. climate commitments will reduce emissions 20 to 27 percent below their all-time high by 2025, a new report card shows.

The climate-change activist Greta Thunberg delivers a speech at a climate-change protest march, as the COP25 climate summit is held in Madrid, Spain, on December 6, 2019.
Greta Thunberg, the youth climate activist, attended a protest this month at the UN climate talks, where the U.S. Climate Alliance is announcing its first results. (Javier Barbancho / Reuters)

In the haze of the Trump administration’s otherwise abysmal climate policy, the states are supposed to be a bright spot. Even though President Donald Trump has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, dozens of states—and hundreds of cities and companies—are “still in.” “We have to fight the despair that some people feel because of the Trump administration’s climate denial and lack of planning,” Washington State Governor Jay Inslee said last year.

Yeah, so—how is that going? Is it actually working? Today, at ongoing United Nations climate negotiations in Madrid, the alliance of states and governors that is still trying to meet the Paris goals released its first report card. It was provided in advance exclusively to The Atlantic.

Its findings are mixed. The alliance has achieved impressive growth, adding eight states in the past year: 24 states and Puerto Rico now pledge to uphold the Paris goals. Those states are cutting emissions much faster than states outside of the alliance, the report found. But they are not necessarily going to meet their goal of upholding the American pledge under the Paris Agreement—a nationwide cut of at least 26 percent by 2025.

The report’s assessments are based on a new energy-system modeling study by Resources for the Future, a centrist nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

States in the alliance will, by 2025, reduce emissions 20 to 27 percent below their all-time high, the report says. That means that only good luck—or new policy—will let the alliance achieve the Obama administration’s promise under the agreement. This partial success comes as other countries in the world gather to negotiate and announce the next, more ambitious phase of the emissions reductions.

These emissions cuts still trounce those of the states that aren’t in the alliance, which the report projects will cut emissions only 3 to 11 percent by 2025. By 2030, those states could even see their collective emissions rise by 3 percent.

Their goal to meet the Paris-plan target is pretty tough, to be honest. Trump’s administration has blocked or repealed most of the Barack Obama–era policy that sought to achieve those cuts at the national level. So the alliance is stuck working at the smaller scale of state government, and it can’t fall back on the muscle or much deeper pockets of Uncle Sam.

“When it comes to efficiency or energy standards, when it comes to fuel-efficiency standards for cars, it’s much easier to do that at federal level,” Chris Davis, a senior policy adviser for Inslee attending the UN negotiations, told me. “No one wants fragmented standards, but that’s unfortunately what you get when you oppose everything at the federal level.”

Even if the alliance makes its goal, it will achieve less than half of the Obama-era cuts because greenhouse gases aren’t allotted proportionally across the union. The 25 governors in the alliance preside over most of the country’s population and 60 percent of its GDP—and they are happy to tell you as much. But their reach covers only about 42 percent of American carbon pollution, according to 2016 data. Texas, which emits more than 10 percent of the country’s carbon pollution, is not in the alliance.

Davis noted that it was impressive that eight states had joined since the alliance was formed and that the goals were still in reach. “To add that many states, and to do so in such a short time, and to still stay in range [of the Paris goals] is great,” he said.

Ben Grumbles, a climate adviser to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, told me that the alliance showed that some bipartisan efforts—such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon-trading market among northeastern states—are popular and working. He noted that Maryland had recently committed to having a zero-emission electricity system by 2040.

“Two thousand forty is ambitious, but maybe that’s achievable,” he said. “Two thousand thirty would not be, because some of the strategies that will be a part of that—like carbon capture, utilization, and storage—will not be deployable by 2030. The key is to have a wide range of strategies to decarbonize electricity and other sectors.”

Joseph Curtin, a member of the Irish government’s climate-change advisory council, told me in an email that the report showed the alliance’s “heroic progress” in swimming “against the federal tide by state governors.”

“But let’s be real here,” he added. “Just like previous climate commitments signed on to by U.S. Presidents in Rio in 1992, in Kyoto in 1997, in Copenhagen in 2008—all subsequently abandoned—the U.S. Paris Agreement target has already drifted out of reach. As a direct result, the life has been sucked out of the Agreement, and it’s currently on life support. So when the U.S. Climate Alliance says that it is ‘demonstrating to the global community that the United States continues to rise to the climate challenge,’ leaders across the world will raise an incredulous eyebrow.”

Beyond state-level policy, the prospects for American climate policy are uncertain. The United States, which is historically the world’s largest carbon polluter and which still has the highest per-capita emissions, has long played a crucial role in international climate negotiations, and it has set a pattern of stewarding treaties to completion before destabilizing them and refusing to participate. In the presidential primary, every Democratic candidate has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, but those who have made climate a centerpiece of their campaign have not found success in the election. One of the most outspoken Republican supporters of climate policy in Congress—Representative Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican—is retiring after this term.

I asked Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat and member of the alliance, how much more his state could do without federal climate policy. “Colorado can’t wait for the federal government to act on climate and transitioning to a renewable energy economy, and we are moving forward as a state,” he dutifully told me by email. “That being said, we know that meaningful climate action requires leadership at the national level, and we would welcome federal collaboration on this important work.”