This November, over 200 nations wrapped up the most recent global climate conference, COP 26. Many activists, politicians, and writers have called it the world’s last best hope to seriously turn the tide on climate. Each day of the conference was full of new promises from countries and corporations pledging to reduce emissions in transportation, energy, and more. In the United States, President Joe Biden has pledged to cut US emissions 50-52 percent by 2030 and is currently working to pass a bill with $555 billion worth of climate-related spending to move toward achieving that goal. Yet most analyses have concluded that this bill alone will not be able to move the US to a 50 percent reduction in nine years, prompting some people to conclude that the U.S. is likely to miss the goal. However, there are other ways to achieve the needed carbon cuts, especially in state government. 

California, the nation’s biggest—and one of its bluest—states, which accounts for about 7 percent of the country’s emissions, has worked aggressively to reduce its emissions. In 2006, California passed a law requiring the state to reach 1990 levels of carbon emissions by 2020, equivalent to a 15 percent cut, through a cap and trade system. This type of climate policy, which passed the US House in 2009, but not the Senate, allows the entire economy to use a certain amount of carbon each year. Companies can gain access to some portion of the carbon market, then trade their portion for profit if their reductions are better than expected, and vice-versa. The cap and trade structure allows the state to set an economy-wide cap for emissions. This guarantees reductions while also giving companies flexibility in reaching the goal, aiding the ones which can cut emissions faster. California actually met its climate goal a few years early, in 2017, then passed a more aggressive goal which extended the pass and trade system and called for a 40 percent reduction by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. 

In 2018, former Governor Jerry Brown signed an Executive Order mandating the state to be carbon neutral by 2045, earlier than the vast majority of countries and companies have committed to. California has also been investing heavily in wind and solar power, allowing it to get 20 percent of its electricity from solar and 7percent from wind by 2019. In 2018 the state required that utilities source 100 percent of their power from renewables, including wind and solar, by 2045. California has also been a leader in zero-carbon electric vehicles, requiring all new cars sold by 2035 to be electric, with some intermittent goals along the way. Along with efforts to decarbonize buildings, which account for 25 percent of statewide emissions, and build out new technology to capture already released carbon from the atmosphere, California has an extensive, detailed, and comprehensive plan to meet its climate goals. 

Other liberal states have been similarly proactive. Washington, led by Governor Jay Inslee who ran for President in 2020 mainly on a climate platform, has a cap and trade program in place to bring the entire state to net-zero emissions by 2050. The state’s climate plan also includes clean fuel requirements for cars, electric vehicle incentives, and state-wide baselines and electricity generation laws. Perhaps most inspiring, Washington is requiring all utilities to use carbon-free electricity by 2030, only nine years away.

Unfortunately, California accounts for only about 7 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, and Washington less than 2 percent, indicating that many more states will have to expand their efforts against climate in order to help achieve Biden’s goals. Red states are generally in a worse position, with fewer laws in place to require a transition to renewables. According to a New York Times article which shows energy generation by method in every state, the majority of blue states have specific, sometimes aggressive, goals to require energy producers to supply a certain amount of their energy mix from renewables by an upcoming year. For example, Oregon will require 50 percent renewable energy by 2040, up from about 12 percent now. New York is mandating 70 percent renewable by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040, whereas New Jersey requires 35 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030. Red states have few renewable energy requirements, and some that do, including Alaska, have made them voluntary. While some states like the Dakotas have already begun generating a large portion of their energy from wind, others including West Virginia still rely heavily on coal, by far the worst carbon emitter, and have no laws in place to change the future of their energy production. Given the Republican party’s denial of climate change, and lack of interest in trying to decarbonize the United States, there is little reason to expect this trend to change in a meaningful way. This demonstrates why the federal government must ultimately be the leader on climate policy; states can aid and increase the work the federal government does to drive deeper cuts, but because so many of them will be unwilling to lift a finger to help. Only the national government will be able to force emissions reductions in every state. 

Of course, electricity generation is only a minority of carbon emissions in the United States. Emissions also come from transportation, industry, and construction. States have the ability to take the lead in each of these categories, and some, like California, already are. States can also aid the entire world in its transition away from fossil fuels by investing early in renewables, electric vehicles, and other low-carbon sources, which will drop the price of these technologies and help them take hold even in states and nations which aren’t incentivizing them. For example, California, because of the strength of its climate laws, has 42 percent of all electric vehicles in the entire country, helping car-makers find ways to push the price of production down. 

Many Americans were understandably disappointed when a key climate element of Biden’s Build Back Better bill was removed due to opposition from a single conservative Democrat in a coal-heavy state. Now, Build Back Better won’t single-handedly bring the United States in line with the President’s goals. Yet, as California demonstrates, along with other liberal states like Washington and New York, states can build on federal goals and actions to bring the United States closer to its goal. The states can’t do it alone the way the federal government could choose to, but for as long as the federal government is lacking a comprehensive approach to climate change, blue states will be there to keep the United States on a path to its necessary emission reduction goals.

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