Despite US criticism of Copenhagen and Congressional stagnation, US states unilaterally shoulder climate change burden

frontpageingressimage_atlantic-wind-farms.jpg Photo: Atlantic Counties Utilities Authority

American cities and states — the largest of which have carbon footprints bigger than those of most nations — have quietly been making serious commitments to curb emissions, and this despite Congress’s current resistance to climate change legislation as being too difficult or too costly to enact.

The state level efforts mirror many pledges that were made by world leaders at the UN climate talks last month in Copenhagen who said they would continue to search for greenhouse gas mitigation technologies and efforts regardless of Copenhagen’s lack of agreement to a binding treaty.

International climate negotiators are expected to push further for emissions cuts targets and legally binding agreements as UN climate talks progress. Next year’s UN climate summit will be hosted by Mexico in Cancun, where highly placed state officials have told Bellona Web they will run more productive talks than the dischord that seemed to reign in Denmark. 

According to a recent study by Environment America, an advocacy group, about half of US states have broad plans and specific regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions. When fully realized, these actions would cut emissions by over 7 percent between now and 2020 — a sizable distance toward the 17 percent reductions President Obama promised at Copenhagen.

States have acted as “laboratories for the rest of the country” that show greenhouse gas curbs needn’t be a burden to the economy, said Anna Aurilio, a director at Environment America.

About half the reductions would come from proposed emission limits in six big states, plus a regional cap on power plant emissions adopted by New York and nine other Northeastern states. And New York City alone has adopted a new law requiring periodic “energy audits” on 22,000 large commercial and residential buildings that account for half of the city’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The other half of greenhouse gas reductions would result from legally required increases in the use of alternative energy sources like wind — 29 states have approved such mandates — as well as stronger state and city efficiency standards for appliances, lighting and buildings.

State governors sign on to memorandum of understanding

In another move, 11 governors from the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic region want to adopt a low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) to reduce greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.

Emissions from the transportation sector alone account for 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released in those states.

Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity pose “serious risks to human health, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and economies globally and in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region,” states a memorandum of understanding the governors signed on Wednesday.

The goal is to develop a framework to reduce emissions from fuel use by 2011.

Energy companies clash with local efforts

Oil companies and industry-backed groups have argued in statements that there aren’t good alternatives to gasoline. Efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions from fuel use in the Northeast won’t have an impact on global emissions and could raise energy prices in the region, they say.

A low-carbon fuel standard could “have dramatic negative impacts on transportation costs and the overall economy,” the Consumer Energy Alliance, a group of energy consumers and producers, said in written comments to the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), which is developing the rule.

The American Petroleum Institute, ConocoPhillips and BP all wrote NESCAUM opposing the low-carbon fuel standard, according to the companies web sites.

One reason oil companies are lobbying against the effort in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic is that they fear regional efforts will increase pressure on Congress to adopt a federal low-carbon fuel standard, their statement said. A standard was originally in the House version of climate change legislation but was taken out after opposition from oil-patch Democrats.

The effort in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic follows a similar push in California to adopt a low-carbon fuel standard.

Senate climate bill remains unsure

Climate legislation passed the House last summer but faces an uncertain future in the Senate, with several centrist Democrats urging their leaders to delay action beyond this Congress. This is a danger with mid-term elections coming, which wil be largely seen as the US public’s mandate on President Barack Obama’s performance so far.

The Copenhagen Accord has thus far had little impact on getting Congress to act. Even Obama took a dim view of the progress at Copenhagen, telling “PBS NewsHour,” a US television programme, that, “I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen. It didn’t move us the way we need to.”

Environmentalists and some senators hold out hope

While acknowledging that Copenhagen produced some unexpected outcomes, however, many in the environmental community and the senate are not being as hard on the result as Obama himself.

“The Copenhagen Summit has in no way saved the world. But it gives room for further work on an international climate agreement,” said Bellona President Frederic Hauge. But he added that “It is terribly sad that we have not come further, but we must not give up on the UN track,” he said.

“One of the building blocks of Copenhagen is the formulations of forest and fast start funding, as well as acceptance from larger countries that they will be able to take a reduction,” said Hauge.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, told The Washington Post that language in the Copenhagen deal allowing for verification of developing countries’ carbon cuts “a very small step forward.”

“We need to find ways to move forward in a bipartisan effort that makes sense for America, regardless of whether the rest of the world follows through or not,” Murkowski said.

But even in the wake of the apparent grassroots groundswell by US States, Environment America’s Aurilio underscored that Congress needs to pass a climate bill that calls for steeper cuts than states are now contemplating and that would apply to the entire country.

Charles Digges