Follow the Leaders: States Set Path to Accelerate U.S. Progress on Climate

Solar panels, transmission tower, wind turbines, and vegetation


Over the last four years, states have been cli­mate lead­ers. Gov­er­nors and leg­is­la­tors have embraced aggres­sive clean ener­gy com­mit­ments that will grow their economies, cut local emis­sions that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harm dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties, and cre­ate sta­ble, high-pay­ing jobs. Along­side this impor­tant work, state attor­neys gen­er­al have defend­ed state and fed­er­al poli­cies that cut green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions. As the Unit­ed States lays out its path for­ward for meet­ing its oblig­a­tions under the Paris Agree­ment in April 2021, it is cru­cial to acknowl­edge that states have been essen­tial cli­mate lead­ers and that work at the state lev­el will con­tin­ue to be crit­i­cal to hit­ting the country’s Paris Agree­ment tar­get. States have long shown that they can serve as lab­o­ra­to­ries for inno­va­tion. States can ensure sus­tained long-last­ing work to cut emis­sions, inde­pen­dent of the bal­ance of pow­er in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. States have imple­ment­ed pro­grams that can serve as mod­els for oth­er juris­dic­tions seek­ing to reduce GHG emis­sions as well. And states have shown that clean ener­gy pro­grams strength­en local and region­al economies and have the poten­tial to cre­ate jobs need­ed in dis­ad­van­taged communities.

How did we get here? In Decem­ber 2015, the world’s nations gath­ered in Paris to com­mit them­selves to act­ing to avoid the worst pos­si­ble cli­mate out­comes. One hun­dred and nine­ty-six coun­tries (referred to as state par­ties in the Agree­ment) adopt­ed the Paris Agree­ment, an inter­na­tion­al treaty that aims to lim­it glob­al tem­per­a­ture rise to 2 degrees Cel­sius above pre-indus­tri­al lev­els by cut­ting GHG emissions.

Under the Paris Agree­ment, every five years, each state par­ty must sub­mit its nation­al­ly deter­mined con­tri­bu­tion” (NDC). An NDC is a com­mit­ment to reduce GHG emis­sions by a cer­tain per­cent­age from the lev­el of emis­sions in a base­line year, by a future date. The Unit­ed States’ 2015 NDC pledged to reduce the country’s GHG emis­sions 26 – 28% from the 2005 emis­sions lev­el by 2025.

The Agree­ment entered into force on Novem­ber 4, 2016. Though then-Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump announced that the Unit­ed States would with­draw from the Agree­ment in June 2017, on his first day in office, Pres­i­dent Biden announced the Unit­ed States would reen­ter the Paris Agree­ment. In Feb­ru­ary 2021, the Unit­ed States offi­cial­ly reen­tered the Agree­ment. Par­ties to the Paris Agree­ment were to have sub­mit­ted their most recent NDC in 2020. Thus, the Biden admin­is­tra­tion has turned its atten­tion to sub­mit­ting the Unit­ed States’ NDC in April 2021.

For the last four years under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment refused to lead on achiev­ing the GHG emis­sions cuts need­ed to ful­fill the Unit­ed States’ respon­si­bil­i­ties under the Paris Agree­ment, and in fact launched a cam­paign to roll back most of the fed­er­al government’s major envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies aimed at cut­ting GHG emissions.

States and oth­er sub­na­tion­al actors announced that they would remain com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing the Unit­ed States’ NDC goals, includ­ing aggres­sive emis­sions cuts and imple­ment­ing numer­ous poli­cies to reduce GHG emis­sions. At the same time, state attor­neys gen­er­al, along with many oth­er advo­cates, worked tire­less­ly in court to defend strong envi­ron­men­tal policies. 

In this report, we com­pile a list of com­mit­ments made by mul­ti­ple states and we describe the progress that those states have made in recent years on cut­ting GHG emis­sions. This com­pi­la­tion is designed to high­light the pos­si­bil­i­ties at the state lev­el and is not com­pre­hen­sive. Even beyond the states and actions list­ed in this com­pi­la­tion, oth­er states have adopt­ed pro­grams that pro­mote clean ener­gy. For exam­ple, many states beyond the ones list­ed in this report have adopt­ed renew­able port­fo­lio stan­dards (RPS) and set renew­able ener­gy tar­gets. In addi­tion, the com­pi­la­tion is based on avail­able pub­lic records and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly account for the newest efforts or the newest pro­jec­tions on emis­sions cuts.

This report shows the extent to which state lead­er­ship has put the Unit­ed States on a path to achiev­ing sig­nif­i­cant cuts in the 2021 NDC. And these state-lev­el clean ener­gy efforts have led to sig­nif­i­cant job cre­ation in fields that can be struc­tured to cre­ate high-qual­i­ty jobs in tra­di­tion­al­ly dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties. The U.S. renew­able ener­gy sec­tor, exclud­ing ener­gy effi­cien­cy posi­tions, sup­port­ed more than 555,000 jobs in 2018. New York antic­i­pates adding more than 10,000 jobs to the near­ly 159,000 exist­ing clean ener­gy indus­try jobs in the state as it builds out its off­shore wind pro­gram, and Mass­a­chu­setts has seen an 86% growth in clean ener­gy jobs since 2010. The impor­tance of clean ener­gy pro­grams is high­light­ed by California’s expe­ri­ence as well. Though lat­er damp­ened by the pan­dem­ic-induced reces­sion, at the end of 2019, Cal­i­for­nia sup­port­ed more than half-a-mil­lion clean ener­gy and ener­gy effi­cien­cy jobs.

There are three impor­tant lessons to draw from the suc­cess of state-lev­el efforts over the past four years to cut GHG emis­sions in the absence of fed­er­al lead­er­ship. These lessons should help guide a new­ly invig­o­rat­ed fed­er­al response as well as a robust sub-nation­al response to the cli­mate crisis.

First, states can and do serve as mod­els of how the Unit­ed States as a whole, includ­ing sub­na­tion­als, can reduce GHG emis­sions. As this report shows, many states have made sig­nif­i­cant progress on achiev­ing aggres­sive goals. Recent research indi­cat­ed that the 24 states and Puer­to Rico that have joined the U.S. Cli­mate Alliance and com­mit­ted to imple­ment poli­cies to reduce GHG emis­sions in line with the Unit­ed States’ 2015 NDC had man­aged to reduce emis­sions 14% between 2005 and 2018, while see­ing a 16% increase in per capi­ta eco­nom­ic output.19 The 2021 NDC should explic­it­ly acknowl­edge that lead­ing cli­mate states have been essen­tial to achiev­ing GHG emis­sions reduc­tions over the last decade-and-a-half and have con­tributed to the imple­men­ta­tion of the Paris Agreement’s goal — and that the pro­grams imple­ment­ed in those states can be repli­cat­ed elsewhere.

Sec­ond, to ensure a mea­sure of sta­bil­i­ty, the Unit­ed States will need to rely on, at least in part, the com­mit­ments and progress states have made over the last four years to sub­mit a NDC that will keep glob­al tem­per­a­ture rise below 2 degrees Cel­sius. Ear­li­er this year, an analy­sis showed that in the absence of fed­er­al action, states and oth­er non-fed­er­al actions have the poten­tial to reduce GHG emis­sions by 37% from the 2005 emis­sions lev­el by 2030.20 Anoth­er report indi­cat­ed that with fed­er­al gov­ern­ment involve­ment, the Unit­ed States could reduce GHG emis­sions 50% from 2005 lev­els by 2030.21 The administration’s NDC will have to rec­og­nize this progress and poten­tial if the Unit­ed States is to sub­mit and then sat­is­fy a bold NDC for this decade. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment needs states to con­tin­ue to make sub­stan­tial and long-term progress on cli­mate commitments.