How State and Local Governments Are Leading the Way on Climate Policy

With the federal government failing to act, many states and cities are taking it upon themselves to cut emissions and increase resiliency.

States and cities wield real power over the emissions released within their borders, including from cars, power plants, factories, and buildings. And many aren’t waiting for a top-down approach—they’re taking the lead. 

Fifteen states now have binding plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past two years, since the Trump administration pulled the nation out of the Paris climate accord, many have set emissions-reduction goals or strengthened plans they already had on the books. A bill passed in Maine this year, for example, calls for emissions at 80 percent below 1990 levels by midcentury, with a halfway goal by 2030. And Hawaii’s 2018 legislation sets a goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. Connecticut and California, meanwhile, have been working to curb emissions for more than a decade. 

“We are transitioning from a fossil-fuel based economy to a cleaner one,” says Suzanne Tegen, assistant director of Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy, “but without policy, we won’t get there fast enough.” 

With support from businesses, community groups, and conservation organizations, including Audubon, states and cities are not only working to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. They’re also looking beyond slashing emissions, creating innovative programs to help humans and wildlife adapt to the changes already upon us, and those to come.

Solution: 100 Percent Renewable Energy

Why We Need It: With 28 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from electricity production, switching to renewables is key. While the cost of solar and wind power, as well as battery storage, was once an obstacle, those costs have dropped dramatically over the past decade; since 2007, installed renewable energy capacity has more than doubled. But that pace still isn’t fast enough. Although renewables now account for more than 17 percent of the nation’s electricity generation, coal and natural gas together represent more than three times that. 

Who’s a Pioneer: New York passed the country’s most ambitious climate policy in June. The law requires carbon-free electricity by 2040 and zero emissions statewide by 2050. But it went even further with the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, requiring at least 35 percent of clean-energy investments be made in marginalized communities, which are often burdened with pollution from power plants. The law establishes a working group—made up of environmental justice advocates and staff from the Departments of Health and Labor, among others—to ensure disadvantaged groups have access to resources like solar panels and energy-efficiency upgrades. 

Other Leaders: Eight states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico now have 100 percent clean-energy goals (which may include nuclear), either through law or executive order, including California, Washington, Maine, and Colorado. Others, such as South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Wisconsin, are moving toward that target. Based on existing state commitments alone, renewable sources will generate nearly a third of the nation’s electricity by 2050 overall, and 75 percent of electricity in the West.

Solution: Low-carbon Buildings 

Why We Need It: American buildings are responsible for a staggering amount of CO2 emissions: They surpass those of any single country except China. Heating and cooling systems are the biggest culprit, but lighting and appliances also contribute. Reducing these emissions, which account for roughly 40 percent of our national output, involves moving from fossil-fuel energy to renewable electricity—think replacing gas-powered heating and hot-water systems with high-efficiency electric heat pumps—as well as using high-efficiency appliances and sealing up energy-sucking leaks.

Who’s a Pioneer: California’s building code, the first of its kind in the country, offers a roadmap for radical changes in the built environment. Amended last year, it requires all new residential construction from 2020 to be net-zero energy, meaning a building makes as much electricity as it consumes. The code, which requires solar panels as well as higher-efficiency insulation and windows, also has requirements for new commercial construction and retrofits of existing commercial and state buildings. But the residential savings on energy bills alone could add up to more than $1.7 billion over 30 years, while dramatically reducing emissions. 

Other Leaders: Washington governor Jay Inslee introduced legislation to invest nearly $80 million in net-zero buildings. Meanwhile, many forward-thinking cities are gearing up to decarbonize
their buildings. Last spring New York City capped the carbon emissions large buildings can legally emit; excess will trigger hefty fines, encouraging owners to invest in efficiency upgrades to older buildings. And Boulder, Colorado, where natural gas accounts for roughly a fifth of emissions, has pledged to reduce residential use by 85 percent by midcentury (and commercial and industrial use by 35 percent), largely by replacing gas-powered heating systems with electric pumps.

Solution: Innovative Transportation

Why We Need It: Despite efforts, vehicle miles traveled are heading in the wrong direction, having increased 11 percent from 2000 to 2016. We need cleaner vehicles and fewer of them on the road to truly transform transportation, which accounts for 29 percent of U.S. emissions. Electric vehicles are part of the answer, particularly in places where electricity increasingly comes from renewable sources.  

Who’s a Pioneer: Transportation is California’s largest source of emissions—more than 40 percent. Over the next two years, the state will invest $30 million to support pilot projects for low-carbon transportation in disadvantaged communities—electric-car sharing, bike sharing, van pools, and more. The program, Clean Mobility Options, aims to reduce local air pollution and
put more low-income people in electric vehicles, while lowering emissions and generally enhancing transportation choices. Based on an index that ranks every census tract according to income level, ethnicity, and pollution levels, it’s an innovative attempt to solve emissions and equity issues together. Marginalized communities tend to be more transit-dependent, while also having less access to alternative transportation options. 

Other Leaders: Washington state is launching a similar program, and Colorado recently passed a series of laws aimed at increasing infrastructure for electric vehicles. Kansas City partnered with its local utility to install a record 1,000 charging stations. Seattle requires large commercial developments to discourage solo vehicle travel by providing things like bike racks and transit passes; since 2010 downtown car commuters have declined, while transit riders have grown by 40,000. And in 2021 New York City will become the first U.S. city to employ congestion pricing, charging drivers to enter much of Manhattan, which could raise $15 billion for mass transit upgrades by 2024.

Solution: Wildlife Corridors

Why We Need It: As climate change alters landscapes, wild animals will need to move to find more hospitable homes. In theory, they can simply, walk, or swim to new habitat. But roads, cities, farms, dams, and other barriers make moving between protected areas difficult. Today one in five species in the United States is in danger of extinction, due in large part to habitat loss and fragmentation, and only 41 percent of existing natural areas across the country are connected enough to let plants and animals move as the climate shifts, according to a 2016 study. Large-scale connectivity projects like the nearly 200-mile-long Path of the Pronghorn, the nation’s first federally protected migration route, designated in 2008, have shown that it’s possible to protect migration pathways and even rebuild links between fragmented landscapes. 

Who’s a Pioneer: For deer, elk, pronghorns, and scores of other animals at risk of being struck by vehicles on New Mexico’s highways, a new state law will help provide safer passage. Passed in March, the Wildlife Corridors Act requires the state’s fish-and-game and transportation departments to identify, prioritize, and maintain corridors for animal movement and to construct highway crossings and other secure means of passage. New Mexico is the first state to pass connectivity legislation. 

Other Leaders: Six other states have corridor legislation in the works: California, Colorado, Oregon, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. There is also movement at the federal level: In May a coalition of leaders in the House and Senate introduced the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act, which would build a National Wildlife Corridor system across federal land and allocate $78.5 million toward wildlife passageways on tribal, state, and private land.

Solution: Carbon Farming

Why We Need It: Growing food accounts for nearly 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. But smarter agricultural practices could turn cropland into a carbon sponge. Plants naturally pull carbon out of the air through photosynthesis; increasing soil health with compost and other practices enables plants to draw down even more of the gas, some of which they inject via their roots into the soil, where microorganisms consume it. More is locked up in decomposing plant pieces left in the soil. Carbon farming, which employs methods that capture and hold carbon, may sequester as much as 1.5 tons of CO2 per acre per year. It also reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers (which contribute to both global warming and marine dead zones) and pesticides, safeguarding our food supply in the process.

Who’s a Pioneer: Last year, in conjunction with the creation of a carbon-offset program, Hawaii launched a Greenhouse Gas Sequestration Task Force to identify ways to store carbon in its farms and natural areas, such as forests. The state is offering grants, technical support, tax credits, and other incentives to help produce and distribute more compost and to generally build healthier soils.

Other Leaders: New Mexico’s Healthy Soil Act, signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in April, offers grants to farmers and ranchers to plant cover crops or native grasses, switch to no-till practices, restore wetlands, use compost, and otherwise explicitly help increase the soil’s “organic matter and carbon content.” Since 2015 politicians have introduced more than 150 soil-health bills in state legislatures, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Roughly 25 have passed, including more than a dozen in California, where dozens of farms have adopted the practice, and many more bills are advancing.

Solution: Coastal Resiliency

Why We Need It: Coastal counties are home to
 42 percent of the U.S. population and contribute nearly half of the national GDP. Those people, and the economies they support, are increasingly at risk from sea-level rise, storm surges, erosion, flooding, and saltwater intrusion into aquifers. More than 60,000 miles of roads and bridges within coastal floodplains are vulnerable to storms, and awareness of the need for communities to start retreating from shores and restoring natural flood buffers is growing. Most states have buyout programs for flood-prone properties that leverage federal funds, yet few tracts purchased to date are coastal, in part because a 25 percent match from homeowners or local sources is often required. What’s more, many residents bristle at solutions imposed from the top down.

Who’s a Pioneer: Armed with $40 million from a federal disaster-resistance competition, Louisiana rolled out an innovative initiative in which residents from six parishes designed coastal-resiliency projects. The program, LA SAFE, recruited and trained locals who facilitated more than 70 community meetings. The solutions they decided on include buyouts of houses outside the levee system, wetland restoration, creation of a public harbor where boats can shelter during storms, and services for people experiencing mental health impacts from the stress of living in disaster-prone areas. 

Other Leaders: A bill moving through the South Carolina legislature would set up a fund to buy flood-prone real estate, giving homeowners loans or grants to cover the 25 percent local match. The legislation also calls for demolishing homes and rebuilding natural buffers in their place. New Jersey’s quarter-century-old Blue Acres Buyout Program, which gained steam after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, prioritizes buyouts of groups of homes to ensure there is enough land to provide an effective buffer. To do that, the program relies on grassroots e orts to band neighbors together. So far, Blue Acres has bought up more than 700 homes in 16 communities across nine counties.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2019 issue as “Action Figures.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.​