2018 Vermont Law Top 10 Environmental Watch List

States Filling the Void on Climate Change

On Dec. 12, 2015, 195 countries signed the historic Paris Agreement creating a firm foundation for meaningful action on climate change through deep decarbonization of energy, transportation, and other economic sectors. The agreement, which entered into force on Nov. 4, 2016, is based on voluntary emission reduction efforts designed to ramp up over time with a goal of holding global temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.

State and Local Action on Climate Change

Click on the photo to watch a video on this issue with article co-author Daphneyse Marcelin.

The ink was barely dry when newly elected President Donald J. Trump made good on his campaign promise to renege on the deal. In a Rose Garden ceremony accompanied by a brass band, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris accord. In a statement loaded with factual and legal errors, President Trump called the agreement unfair and harmful to the American economy. By contrast, former President Obama stated, “The nations that remain in the Paris Agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created.”

For now, the United States has relinquished its leadership on climate change, but states and local communities are stepping up to the plate. In particular, California and the nine states that comprise the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) have taken strong action to fill the void left by Trump’s defection from Paris.

In the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2016 (AB32), California established the goal of limiting statewide GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The legislation directed the Air Resources Board (ARB) to adopt regulations to achieve the maximum technologically feasible and cost‑effective GHG emission reductions by 2020. In 2016, the legislature established an additional target of reducing emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

With AB32 set to expire in 2020 and with a legal challenge clouding its future, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed through a package of amendments (AB398) last July extending the law through 2030 and insulating it from further legal attack. AB378 made changes to the emissions trading program to provide greater price stability, close loopholes in the use of out-of-state offsets, and dedicate revenues from the quarterly auctions to be used to improve environmental conditions in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

At a time when the federal government is stepping back from efforts to address global climate change, California has taken the lead with a cap-and-trade framework that serves as a model for other states and countries. California’s program created powerful incentives for California industry and utilities to reduce GHG emissions and to move toward cleaner forms of energy while creating good-paying jobs at a record clip—more than 100,000 solar jobs in 2016 alone.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, RGGI states Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have been implementing the nation’s first mandatory “cap and invest” program for the electricity power sector since 2005. Revenues from the quarterly auctions of allowances have topped $2 billion. RGGI states distribute more than 90 percent of allowances. The proceeds from those auctions are available to invest in strategic energy and consumer benefit programs. The total CO2 emissions from the nine RGGI states account for approximately 7 percent of the nation’s CO2 emissions.

In August 2017, the nine states agreed on a proposal to cut their global warming pollution by an additional 30 percent from the region’s power plants between 2020 and 2030. By 2030, the power sector emissions would be 65 percent lower than they were in 2009.

RGGI got a further boost with the recent election of Phil Murphy as governor of New Jersey and Ralph Northam as governor of Virginia. Murphy has pledged to rejoin RGGI and to develop a plan to achieve 100 percent renewables by 2050. Northam has vowed to follow through on his predecessor’s plan to create a carbon market in Virginia linked to RGGI.

Looking ahead to 2018, California is poised to play another key role in the battle to preserve the fuel economy rules adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Obama and currently under review by the Trump administration. The Obama rules require a corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Under pressure from automakers, Trump has ordered the EPA to weaken this standard. However, under the “waiver” provision of the Clean Air Act, California can set stricter tailpipe emission standards. Twelve other states have adopted California’s standards—a coalition that covers more than 130 million residents and more than a third of the vehicle market in the United States.

Individual entities all over the country are taking action on climate change, including state, local government, civil society businesses, and universities. Everyone is picking up the mantle to serve as an important bulwark against the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back the progress the United States has made in addressing climate change. And that is a bit of good news for the planet.