Here’s How U.S. Cities and States Can Help Drive International Climate Action - Years Of Living Dangerously

Here’s How U.S. Cities and States Can Help Drive International Climate Action

By Sue Biniaz

The global effort to combat climate change has long focused on the commitments and actions of national governments but, as the international community prepares for the annual climate conference in November, leadership is growing from a new group: U.S. cities and states.

Until recently, I was a lawyer at the U.S. State Department. In that capacity, I represented the United States from 1989 through 2016 in international negotiations on climate change. This included, among other things, the original UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the United States joined in 1992; the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States did not join; the non-binding Copenhagen Accord; and the 2015 Paris Agreement.

International climate negotiations have been notoriously contentious, involving not only a complicated combination of science, economics, law, technology, and politics, but also the need to accommodate vastly different national interests and priorities. I have to admit that, during most of those years, I did not think too much about U.S. cities and states.  My attention was fully absorbed by the need to advocate the interests of the United States as a whole, as well as to help solve the problems that impeded international agreement.

That changed during the negotiation of the Paris Agreement, the global agreement that aims to keep the increase in global average temperature “well below” 2 degrees C. and sets out various means to do so. Many countries, including the United States, pushed for cities, states, companies, and other “non-State actors” to be able to reflect their own climate commitments – in addition to whatever commitments their governments might undertake at the national level. Further, non-State actors themselves pressed for greater inclusion in the international climate process and the ability to demonstrate their commitment to stronger action.

Proponents had various rationales, such as that sub-national action would bolster the credibility of national emission pledges or that the “groundswell” of non-State engagement would send a signal to the market that the transition to a low-carbon economy was inevitable. Fortunately, the message was heard. Thus, while the Paris Agreement is a typical international agreement in the sense that only countries can formally join it, the larger Paris outcome is atypical, in that it provides many opportunities for non-State actors to meaningfully address climate change.

Many U.S. states and cities, as well as businesses, were busy taking on climate-related commitments even before President Trump announced, on June 1st, that he intended to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement.

Post-June 1st, however, the level of commitment exploded.

The withdrawal announcement brought on a new wave of commitments from U.S. cities and states. Many immediately expressed their support for the Paris Agreement, whether through policy statements or more formal executive orders. Hawaii even passed a law to that effect. Individual state and city expressions of support for Paris continue to be reported.

In some cases, non-State actors banded together to make announcements of coordinated action. The “We Are Still In” coalition, co-launched by Governor Jerry Brown and former Mayor Bloomberg, seeks to aggregate and quantify climate action across a bipartisan range of U.S. actors, including cities, states, businesses, and universities. The “United States Climate Alliance,” co-launched by California, New York, and Washington, is a bipartisan group of states committed to the Paris Agreement’s objectives within their borders, including the U.S. emissions target (i.e., a 26-28 % reduction below 2005 levels in 2025). Their number has reached fourteen, plus Puerto Rico, and they recently announced that their members are on track to meet, or even exceed, their portion of that target.

At this point, U.S. non-State actors have a wide range of possibilities for international climate engagement, in addition to the option of joining one of the initiatives above.

One of the Paris-related tools, the so-called “NAZCA” portal, allows non-State actors to reflect commitments of their own choosing. To date, there have been over 12,500 commitments registered from cities, states, business, and other non-State actors from all over the world.  If you go to the NAZCA portal and click on the map of the United States, you will see a wide array of commitments from all across the country. For example, Chicago has a CO2 emissions reduction commitment, while Iowa has issued green bonds for climate-resilient water management. You can also plug in the name of a company, and its commitments will pop up.

182 cities across the U.S. have registered their climate actions in the NAZCA Portal.

Cities and localities have the option of joining the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, which supports voluntary action to address climate change and move to a low-emission, resilient society. Over 700 cities and localities worldwide have taken on commitments. Chicago is set to host a summit this December of North American cities that have joined the Covenant.

Both cities and states can join the so-called “Under2 MOU,” which includes participants from around the world. This “Memorandum Of Understanding,” unlike the NAZCA portal and the Global Covenant, sets out certain minimum standards. An adherent must commit to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% below 1990 levels, or limit emissions to less than 2 annual metric tons of CO2-equivalent per capita, by 2050.

It is also an option for U.S. states and cities to establish cooperative arrangements with counterparts in other countries, such as between sister cities or other entities. They might be rather informal, such as the recent one between California and Scotland, or somewhat more formal, such as the linkage of emissions trading systems between California and Quebec.  Of course, any such arrangements need to be mindful of constitutional limitations on sub-national agreements with foreign powers, including the Compact Clause.

Cities, states, and businesses interested in longer-term planning can prepare mid-century, low-emission strategies. The Paris Agreement encourages its Parties—the countries that have joined it—to formulate and communicate such strategies; last year, the initiative was broadened to include non-State actors. A “2050 pathways platform” has been established for such strategies, housed at the European Climate Foundation.

There are also increased opportunities to participate in the international climate process, including in-person. There is a high-level event for non-State actors at each annual Conference of the Parties (the next so-called “COP” coming up in November in Bonn, Germany). There are two “high-level champions” designated by the outgoing and incoming “Presidents” of the annual COP to interact with non-State actors (at the moment, from Morocco and Fiji). Stakeholders can attend various “action” events.  They can also submit views on the issues under negotiation, including, at the moment, the guidelines being developed to implement the Paris Agreement.

Finally, Governor Brown has announced a Global Climate Action Summit to be held in California in September, 2018, which will be open to climate leaders from countries, states, cities, businesses, etc., and will be in support of the Paris Agreement.

If anyone had told me several years ago that we would be looking to U.S. states, cities, and businesses to be the de facto leaders on climate action, including internationally, I would not have believed it.  It is unfortunate that it took the abdication of leadership at the federal level to trigger much of that action. However, these actions have now seized the spotlight – and rightfully so.