States Prepare to Rise to CO2 Challenge as Senate Climate Bill Collapses

The collapse of an energy reform proposal in Congress last week could return power to north America's historic actors on climate change: the regions.

May 4, 2010 | Source: The Guardian | by Suzanne Goldenberg

The collapse of an energy reform proposal in Congress last week could return power to north America’s historic actors on climate change: the regions.

In Washington, even Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats are reluctant to take up proposals in Congress that would put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions – prompting the sole Republican ally to withdraw his support.

In Ottawa, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, has adopted an action plan on climate change that would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.

By default, that leaves regional governments as the drivers for tougher action on climate change in what is now becoming a familiar role, the White House admits.

“If the states hadn’t taken the positions they have in the last four or five years we wouldn’t have any programmes in place,” Carol Browner, the White House climate adviser, told reporters recently.

The power of regional governments to deal with climate change is coming into sharper focus because of the lack of progress on national and international agreements to deal with climate change – and because it is under threat. The climate proposals due to be unveiled before the Senate would strip state authorities of their power to act on climate change.

In a recent conference call with reporters, environmental authorities from a number of states argued their policies had helped set the pace for reform on a national stage, prodding the federal government forward and serving as a test lab for new policies.

Though Washington and Ottawa have yet to pass cap-and-trade legislation, 23 US states and four Canadian provinces have already put a price on carbon. Between them, the carbon cutting regimes will eventually cover half of America’s population and about a third of its emissions and about three-quarters of Canada’s population and half of its emissions.

“The bottom line here is that the federal government needs to explicitly recognise the value of state programmes,” Mary Nichols, who heads California’s air resources board, told reporters.

After leading the way on emissions cuts and vehicle exhaust standards, California is now looking at measures to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic components used in car interiors. The state has also set high energy efficiency standards for flatscreen TVs.

Even some of the states that have not formally signed on to cap and trade are also moving away from fossil fuels. Colorado this month adopted a plan to meet 30% of its energy needs from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2020. Arizona has put restrictions on wood burning fireplaces.

State authorities say such forward-looking policies simply make economic sense. Nichols said California’s climate law, which called for 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, had led to the creation of 500,000 new green jobs in the state.

The same incentives hold true north of the border. Quebec, for example, has been relentlessly talking up its green credentials to help market its zero emissions hydro-electric power to north-eastern states. The provincial premier, Jean Charest, argues that the decentralised nature of authority in Canada and the US established regional governments as natural leaders.

“Regional governments everywhere account for 50% to 80% of what will be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “We are the ones that are going to be the operating arm.”