From California to the New York island, it is easy to carry on in the United States without engaging with the UNFCCC, the COPs, the looming INDCs, or the many more wonky acronyms that come along with the UN climate negotiations. For the record, the UNFCCC is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and it serves as the international negotiating body to develop agreements that aim to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” COP is the Conference of the Parties–these are the UN “Climate Talks” which take place at the end of every year to bring all the parties of the UNFCCC together. The INDCs are Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, but we’ll get to those later.
All states in the US are operating on a mirror timeline of decision making to the UN Climate Talks. This summer, the EPA proposed the Clean Power Plan, which tasks each state to develop a unique carbon reduction plan. The last day that the EPA is accepting comments on the Clean Power Plan was December 1st, which also marked the first day of COP20, the 20th round of the UN Climate Talks currently underway in Lima, Peru.
The goal of this round of the Talks is to build the framework and criteria of the next international climate treaty, which will be signed at COP21, the following round of talks that will take place in 2015 in Paris. All countries must submit an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the agreement, which is essentially a country specific mitigation target. These submissions are expected by March, 2015, with a hard deadline in June, 2015, the same time that the EPA intends to finalize the Clean Power Plan. States’ reactions and alterations to the Clean Power Plan will reveal if the United States is able to fulfil its own mitigation target and therefore will play a role in shaping the outcome of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement, as well as the Clean Power Plan, is set to kick into effect in 2020. The strength of this policy will show the ambition of countries to tackle climate change and will reveal if we are able to prevent warming to exceed two degrees Celsius. Two degrees is the politically and scientifically agreed upon limit of warming beyond which we are projected to experience catastrophic effects of an altered climate system.
A key principle of the UNFCCC is to act in accordance with “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” Previous agreements of the UNFCCC have focused heavily on the former component of this phrase, creating a strict divide between developed and developing countries by emphasizing differentiated responsibilities.” Considering the policy method of INDCs and state-specific mitigation targets, greater attention is now being placed upon the latter component to the phrase of “respective capabilities.” Both of these policy initiatives have a hybrid form combining bottom-up and top-down strategy, differing from more traditional approaches of setting high level environmental regulations, monitoring, and enforcement.
The bottom up method brings valuable qualities to an agreement. First, the structure brings universal buy-in. Rather than creating an idealized policy from a top-down perspective, a component of the policy rests on the agency of local and regional governance to analyze and produce the local capacity for compliance. Additionally, creating agency at the state or regional level allows for experimentation with alternate strategies and a greater ability to address behavior of citizens. This hybrid method may open up more space for struggle and strife of opposing views, but will ultimately produce more effective strategy that is reflective of local realities and is not at risk of a top-down failure from misguided policy.
So, where do US states stand right now concerning climate action? There is great variety in this answer across the nation–ten states are engaged in market-based programs for greenhouse gas reduction, including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the East and California Cap-and-trade. Twenty-seven states have energy efficiency standards to reduce overall energy consumption. Furthermore, twenty-nine states have a mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to spur development of carbon free power production, while an additional 8 states have an RPS goal. State-level climate policy has been largely voluntarily driven up to this point; the Clean Power Plan provides an opportunity to scale up renewable energy production and energy efficiency programs already underway in a number of states.
Given that the US holds the record by far for the largest amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere historically, it is imperative for the US to commit to bold action to spur ambition from countries around the world leading up to the Paris agreement. The commitments made by the US in the negotiations have global repercussions, just as much as the inaction of the US would create a global roadblock to climate progress. For the US to commit to bold climate action and submit a just INDC, our states must take on the task of reducing carbon emissions locally and leading the charge for local adaptation efforts.
The honest reality is that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is still not nearly enough. Even if the Plan goes through without being turned into a swiss cheese form of policy, the US still has a great deal of work to do in order to produce a plan to support the international effort to stay below the 2℃ warming limit. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan may be the best policy option that we have right now for greenhouse gas mitigation, but it is one of the many pieces of the global puzzle that currently are not adding up to meet climate stabilization goals.
States have the opportunity to lead on the development of climate policy internationally and must strive to go beyond their assigned carbon reduction targets. States must not make climate policy decisions from the perspective of a single-state actor, but rather, must recognize the larger global context and timeline in which they are situated. The means by which each state will develop, or fail to develop, climate policy will affect the international effort to build a successful climate treaty to support the development of just and stable word.