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.