Local leadership must be the on the front lines of the climate fight

“A version of this article appeared in The Hill

The stakes of the reconciliation package couldn’t be higher. To reach our climate goals and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must cut our emissions in half by 2030. As Congress considers the best way to do that, it risks missing a critical key to success.

For years, successful efforts to reduce U.S. emissions have involved a particular brand of federalism: Cities, states, businesses, and community groups set the pace and raised ambition, while the federal government supported and nationalized the best ideas. It was state leadership that enabled the Obama administration to persuade Detroit to embrace clean car emission standards in 2009. Community activism and state regulators ensured that the U.S. coal fleet would retire faster than the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan would have required and business and state leadership led the U.S. to phase out climate-disrupting refrigerants.

The Biden administration is, without question, the most strongly climate committed of any in history. But in only nine months it has run into some hard realities. Any administration is constrained by the attitudes of the Supreme Court and Congress. The Biden administration has proposed cleaning up emissions from cars and trucks, but was unable to go as far as California, or even undo all the damage the Trump administration had left behind. A number of states have straightforward 100 percent clean electricity requirements — but the closest Biden could come was to offer financial rewards and disincentives, not mandates, for utilities.

Washington alone can’t deliver the long-term reductions necessary to cut U.S. emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030. Today, new analysis reveals that the clearest path to our climate goal requires action at every level of government, every part of society, and across the transportation, power, building, industrial and lands sectors. The blueprint, developed by the analytical team behind the climate action coalition America Is All In, demonstrates that by building on the foundation of bottom-up leadership, we have the best chance for rapid, durable, transformative change.

It’s clear that the problem Congress must solve is how to best use this reconciliation package to drive state and city ambition, while increasing federal financing and public support for our 2030 goal. There are four key opportunities that the federal government should take advantage of to support city and state clean energy and climate leadership.

First, accelerate the clean electricity revolution. One of the things the federal government does really well and really cheaply is borrow money. By providing a strategic combination of tax credits, loans and infrastructure finance to businesses, cities, states and other institutions, the federal government can make carbon free power — of all sorts and at all scales — even more financially attractive than it already is.

Second, solve the range anxiety barrier to the sales of electric cars and trucks by financing a complete network of fast EV charging stations, so that electric vehicles can go anywhere. Support the needed growth of mass transit for cities and states unable to borrow funds at super-cheap federal interest rates. America Is All In’s Blueprint 2030, for example, calls for 1 million EV chargers and a doubling of federal investment in mass transit, including $80 billion for passenger and freight rail.

Third, repeal the web of subsidies that fatten the profits of coal, oil and gas producers. We can start by dumping giveaways for fossil fuel producers on public lands and taxing methane from venting and flaring coal, oil, and gas.

Fourth, reform federal housing and banking policies so that cities and states can require high performance codes for new buildings, phase out polluting gas furnaces and heaters and finance efficiency retrofits of leaky, uncomfortable homes and offices.

And above all, Congress needs to remember that in this partnership between national and local government, much of the leadership has always come from the bottom-up. Non-federal leaders can go farther and faster than the federal government. State governments can set the pace of transition and lock in stringent standards and emissions reductions. And action from cities, businesses and civil society leaders can bolster this transition by establishing reliable markets for clean energy.

To ensure success, Washington will need to be a supportive partner as much as a visionary leader.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg