Biden will aid state, local climate efforts

By Jerry Tinianow

In October 2019, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg turned down the 2019 Nordic Council Environmental Prize, writing that “the climate movement does not need any more awards.” Her message should strike a chord among locally-focused climate groups.

States and cities jumped to the forefront of climate work when Donald Trump became President. His election brought an abrupt end to federal efforts to prevent the worst effects of human-caused climate change. In 2017 the Paris Climate Agreement was just over a year old, but he withdrew the U.S. from it. He began flushing climate science out of federal agencies.

States and cities rushed into this vacuum. They pledged to meet, within their own communities, the reductions called for in the Paris Agreement.

As Denver’s Chief Sustainability Officer (2012-19) I was an active participant in these efforts. When President Trump was elected we already had a 2020 greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goal. We would reduce our community emissions back to where they were in 1990.

We knew that this would be a stretch. Denver’s population had grown a lot since 1990. But we stretched and met the goal two years ahead of schedule. We got onto the CDP “A List” of top-performing cities in GHG disclosure and action. (CDP is an international climate change group formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project.)

Denver, however, was an outlier. In December 2019 the online journal Quartz analyzed data from the 608 cities that reported through CDP. Only 130 had 2020 GHG reduction goals, and of those, only 20% of those were on track to achieve them.

The news got worse. The Paris Agreement GHG reduction targets were themselves outdated. A September 2019 assessment found that commitments to cut GHG emissions would have to increase by a factor of five the keep global warming to a tolerable 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Even the vaunted C40 cities, the world leaders in urban climate change ambition, are seriously behind. Their 170 member cities had pledged to have plans in place by the end of 2020 to meet the Paris goals. Today only 23 have such plans.

States are doing no better. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) reported in December 2020 that only a few of the states that had set GHG reduction goals for 2025 were on track to meet them. None was on track to meet the Paris 2030 goals. Only half of states even had GHG reduction goals.

The COVID-19 pandemic dropped GHG emissions for a while. Global emissions dropped by 6.4% in 2020. The drop, however, bottomed out in the spring. GHG concentrations in the atmosphere keep increasing. They now top 416 parts per million. The last time they were this high was over 800,000 years ago, when modern humans didn’t exist.

C40 Cities and the other national and international organizations that focus on state and local climate change efforts need to start speaking forcefully, honestly and immediately about where we are right now and what needs to change. Their members need to hear it, as does the public.

This kind of tough love is hard to deliver. Imagine scoring the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, only to be told that the rules just changed, the game now lasts 15 innings, and you have to win by three runs. It’s hard to keep team morale up in such circumstances. But organizations like these have to go where the science leads, even if it’s painful.

Fortunately, the Biden climate cavalry has arrived. After four tough years, state and local governments again have a friend in the White House. That friend should thank them for their efforts, engage them as partners in setting the new federal agenda, and provide the policy guidance and material support that have been lacking since 2016.

EDF recommends combining enforceable caps on emissions with price signals to spur private-sector innovation. Ideally the federal government would do this, because cities alone can’t.

As a Plan B, however, cities can work with their states, and states can work with each other, to put caps and price signals in place.

The clock is ticking, the carbon budget (the amount of future emissions we can release safely) is shrinking, and the cost of delay always goes up. The Biden administration should form a strong climate partnership with state and local governments immediately to overcome the shortfalls of the past.

Jerome Tinianow was the first chief sustainability officer for the City and County of Denver, serving from 2012 to 2019. He is now proprietor of WestUrb. He also has served as Ohio executive director of the National Audubon Society and is an attorney who practiced commercial trial law for over 20 years.

Recent Posts

We and selected third parties use cookies or similar technologies for technical purposes and, with your consent, for other purposes. You can consent to the use of such technologies by using the “Accept” button, by closing this notice, by scrolling this page, by interacting with any link or button outside of this notice or by continuing to browse otherwise.