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Beyond the UN, ‘Sub-National’ Players Emerge as New Climate Leaders

Clint Wilder's picture

The eyes of the world were on New York City in late September, even more than the city thinks they usually are. After some 310,000 people marched through the streets of Manhattan demanding action on climate change (full disclosure: I was one of them), more than 120 heads of state paraded through the United Nations Climate Summit speaking about the regional and global climate crisis. Those two events, understandably, received widespread media coverage; climate action (or inaction) by national governments has been in the spotlight since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997.  But in the battle to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and grow a clean-energy economy, a less heralded but arguably more effective movement is emerging: provinces, regions, states, and cities working across borders to turn local action into global action.

At Clean Edge, we have believed and shown for several years that states and metro areas are at the forefront of climate policies and clean-tech incentives in the U.S., while Congress has ranged from gridlocked bystander to embarrassing roadblock. Since 2010, our U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index has benchmarked this sub-national progress in clean-tech deployment, policy, and capital, noting that the share of electricity from renewables in states like Iowa and South Dakota, for example, compares favorably with world-leading nations like Denmark, Germany, and Spain.

At one of the dozens of events during Climate Week NYC in September, that message was driven home by Tom Plant, senior policy advisor at the Center for a New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, chaired by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. Speaking at the International Emissions Trading Association’s (IETA) Carbon Forum North America, Plant pointed out that if you combine the populations of the 29 U.S. states with renewable portfolio standards in place, they would form the fifth-largest nation in the world. In other words, despite a do-nothing Congress and the lack of a national RPS, the sub-nations (states) still make the U.S. a global leader in clean-energy policies. “I’m not saying state legislatures are always the most functional,” said Plant, who served four terms in the Colorado House, “but we do get some things done.” 

Interstate collaboration among forward-thinking states has also been a key to climate leadership, with the nine-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) carbon trading system among nine Northeastern states being the best example. But more recently, states, cities, and regions are reaching beyond national borders as well, to share carbon reduction and clean-tech deployment ideas and best practices with their brethren around the world.

Next month, California’s landmark carbon trading system will hold its first joint auction with the Canadian province of Quebec – and both are seeking additional states and provinces to join the system. California is also advising seven different provinces in China that are piloting such systems; Guangdong Province’s is the second largest in the world behind the European Union’s. “We’re looking for partners wherever we can for a bottom-up approach to move climate action forward,” says Cliff Rechtschaffen, senior advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown. California is also one of three states (with Oregon and Washington) partnering with British Columbia in the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy to promote a low-carbon regional economy.

During the UN Climate Summit, two major announcements gave more momentum to this cross-border trend. Three worldwide state and regional coalitions launched The Compact of States and Regions, which will establish a yearly accounting of climate commitments made by state and regional governments around the world and report progress towards those commitments. The coalitions, an alphabet and numeral soup that includes The Climate Group States & Regions Alliance, nrg4SD, and R20, together represent dozens of sub-national representatives from places as diverse as Connecticut, Gujarat, Tasmania, Catalonia, the Western Province of Sri Lanka, and Wales. “We’re looking for a new era of bilateralism at the sub-national and regional level,” says Glen Murray, minister of the environment and climate change for the Canadian province of Ontario and former mayor of Winnipeg.

On the cities front, the mayors of Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia (the second, fourth, and fifth largest cities in the U.S.) launched the Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda to push for, among other things, aggressive near-term and long-term GHG reduction plans by cities. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who previously had not made climate action the priority it was for predecessor Michael Bloomberg, began Climate Week NYC by pledging an 80 percent reduction in Big Apple GHG emissions from 2005 levels by 2050. New York joined an “80 percent pledge” cities list that includes Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Stockholm. Across the Atlantic, Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan and others have hatched a new entity called The Global Parliament of Mayors that seeks to bring mayors together on a range of issues. Two relevant data points here: half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and in the U.S., polls say more than 60 percent of people trust their mayors, while just 12 percent trust Congress.

By most accounts, the UN Climate Summit brought a more hopeful sense of urgency on climate action from the world’s nations than such gatherings in the past. But the chances of a meaningful global accord on emissions reduction at the next meeting, the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in late 2015, remain very much in doubt. At the IETA Carbon Forum, first-term California Congressman Jared Huffman brought a dose of Capitol Hill reality to a heady week in New York. “A multi-national climate treaty, ratified by the U.S. Senate,” said Huffman, “is just not going to happen. That’s why this discussion at the sub-national level is so important – and can be quite effective.” And Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, at a different event, was even blunter: “If we sit around waiting for world leaders to act, it will be 90 degrees every day in Vermont.”

The World War I era French statesman Georges Clemenceau once famously said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” A century later, the climate crisis and the transition to a low-carbon, clean-energy economy may be too important to be left to national governments – at least in waiting for a serious international treaty. On the public sector side, it is the sub-nations – the world’s states, cities, provinces, and regions, working individually and together – who are blazing another path to action.

Wilder is Clean Edge's senior editor, a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post, and co-author of Clean Tech Nation and The Clean Tech Revolution (both with Ron Pernick). E-mail him at and follow him on Twitter at @Clint_Wilder.