Leading on Climate at Every Level

Font Size:

States and subnationals can rise to the challenges posed by climate change.

Font Size:

The causes of climate changes stem from many sources. So, too, must the solutions. Fighting climate change demands action at every level of government.

The California Air Resources Board, where we work—though this article is written in our personal capacities—is pioneering solutions in one of the world’s largest economies, and is doing so in collaboration with many other jurisdictions. We are familiar with the difficulties of subnational regulation that Professors Cary Coglianese and Shana Starobin cite in their recent essay for The Regulatory Review. We are also familiar with overcoming these difficulties.

Subnationals grow climate change solutions. We seed technological breakthroughs, like zero-emission vehicles, that have begun to spread worldwide. We plant policy ideas—like our cap-and-trade system—that are tested, refined, and thrive in local environments. We intertwine and extend policy approaches—such as linking with Canadian provinces in our cap-and-trade program—to achieve greater effect. We craft policies that are robust, cost-effective, scalable, and exportable.

Consider greenhouse gas emissions from three key sectors that make up the lion’s share of smokestack and tailpipe emissions: electric power, mobile sources, and industrial sources. In each area, states and other subnationals, supported and, sometimes, prodded forward by a vibrant citizens’ climate movement, are making real progress; indeed, these states and other subnationals are teaching the national entities how to do it right.

With regard to electrical power generation, which makes up about a third of U.S. emissions, states across the political spectrum are rapidly moving away from fossil fuels. These states are doing so because coal and gas are expensive, polluting, and increasingly unnecessary as renewable energy, energy efficiency, and storage become ever cheaper. Even temporarily cheap natural gas should ultimately be out-competed by zero-carbon power. As a result, savvy public utility commissions and government officials—everywhere from Kentucky to Montana—are making plans for a cleaner future. With the Clean Power Plan building upon and supporting this trend, the power market is committed to a cleaner future.

With regard to mobile source emissions—another third or so of the emissions pie—we see progress on multiple fronts. The vehicle standards California played an important role in setting due to its special Clean Air Act authority now cover more than a third of the U.S. fleet thanks to the more than a dozen states who have adopted our policies. Our authority is well established by decades of court rulings and agency decisions. Our program is rapidly decarbonizing transport, and nations and companies around the world are moving quickly towards zero emissions fleets. In addition, subnationals can take meaningful action even without California-style authority. States already have ample opportunity to set in-use standards for existing vehicles, to pull clunkers off the roads, and to implement sound urban planning and public transit policies to drive emissions down.

Emissions from industrial sources—another significant chunk of pollution—are also very much in the domain of subnationals. The responsibility for permitting new sources, and for retrofitting old ones, initially lies with local permitting agencies. Those agencies have strong legal direction to ensure that controls are top-flight—and they can direct the industrial sources to switch fuels to electricity or even retire of older sources. Subnationals also use incentives, innovation funds, and other tools to spur change.

We could go on. When it comes to agricultural and forestry emissions, for instance, states and local land-use planners have long been in the lead—though federal direction can help to unify and steer those efforts. The same story holds true for urban planning and moves towards dense development.

Global and federal climate and air pollution initiatives—including the Paris Agreement and the Clean Air Act’s programs of state-planned air pollutant reductions—are complemented by other efforts. The California-launched “Under 2 MOU” connects governments, including many subnationals, to support the goals in the Paris Agreement. The Clean Air Act’s core air quality attainment program is premised upon states’ abilities to develop implementation plans to meet federal standards. The result has been a marked improvement in air quality, cost-effectively saving thousands of lives over the last forty years.

Moreover, subnationals and local entities act as a check on—and spur for—federal action. California and other allied states are litigating—with an impressive win-loss record—to keep the federal government true to its obligations to address climate change and air pollution. We will keep doing so.

Several legal bases account for U.S. state-level success in fighting climate change. A number of these bases stem from federalism principles deeply embedded in the structure of our government.  The Clean Air Act recognizes sovereign states’ role in protecting their people and explicitly preserves more aggressive state action. States also have traditional legal roles in ratepayer utility planning, transportation and urban planning, and facility siting that suits them well to drive emissions reductions and create environments that low-emissions technology can develop in and spread in.

To be sure, subnationals will not stop climate change singlehandedly. We need help to coordinate and extend our efforts. We must also continue to take steps to reduce the risk of emissions “leakage” to other jurisdictions, which Coglianese and Starobin identify as a potential downside of regulating without coordination. California’s regulations are already designed to ameliorate leakage—for example, through policy adjustments that mitigate it; by expanding the universe of jurisdictions that adopt similar policies and thereby reducing the likelihood that emissions move elsewhere; and much more. Moreover, focusing solely on the risk of leakage obscures the fact that green economies like California’s are fast growing.

Approaches solely focused on the global or national level will not cut it. These approaches include one-size-fits-all policies that deprive governments of the benefits of policy experimentation and responsiveness to local conditions; a lack of local-level democratic accountability and trust that support the transformational reforms necessary to stop climate change; and a risk that an approach solely focused at the global or national level might fall victim to policy retrenchment or capture. We see that risk, unfortunately, being realized in Washington, D.C., today, as the federal government moves to support narrow fossil-fuel based interests over the public good.

We do not mean to give the feds a pass. Although states, cities, and citizens are making progress, federal leadership, funds, and innovation are desperately needed. After all, in this sort of complex crisis, one of the centers of action needs to be within the Beltway. We hope it is again soon. Until then, look for progress in Sacramento and in communities across the world.

Craig Segall

Craig Segall is Assistant Chief Counsel at the California Air Resources Board.

David Hults

David Hults is Assistant Chief Counsel at the California Air Resources Board.

This article was written in Segall and Hults’s personal capacity and does not represent the view of the California Air Resources Board.

This essay is part of a five-part series, entitled State and Local Regulation of Climate Change.