Cities and states take action as U.N. climate talks inch forward

Derek Walker

While nations squabbled about intentions during the recent United Nations-led climate talks in Lima, another story was playing out on the sidelines. It showed real, groundbreaking and consequential progress below the national level – within states, provinces and cities.

After spending the vast majority of my time in the Peruvian capital with innovative and dynamic leaders, I came away with an unbridled sense of optimism and renewed hope that there are pathways to climate progress, even if many of them go around, rather than through, the formal U.N. process.

Here are four ways meaningful climate action is happening, even while national governments are dragging their feet:

1. California continues to be a huge laboratory for climate solutions

California will be expanding its cap-and-trade program to cover emissions from transportation fuels in less than two weeks.

The state’s low-carbon leadership was amplified in Lima by California Senate President Kevin de León, who regaled delegates with his always charismatic case for the connection between climate action, jobs, and economic growth. He pointed to the state’s cap-and-trade system as an example of how the state can “lead the world and show other nations the way to de-carbonize their economies.” 

2) The partnership between California and China is thriving

In Lima, I moderated a panel highlighting the collaboration between California and China, a partnership that involves a substantive, two-way exchange of ideas and expertise on issues such as emissions trading, clean vehicles, sustainable infrastructure, and technology deployment.

In less than two years, cities and provinces in China have developed pilot cap-and-trade programs that are paving the way for a future national emissions trading system in China.

California has a lot to learn from the Chinese experience, and Chinese leaders studied the design of California’s system as the pilots were being developed.

3) Cooperation among North American states and provinces is on the rise

Partnerships between local and state parties in North America are taking off, in part because of the lack of action at the national level, and particularly so in the United States and Canada.

California and Quebec recently completed a successful joint allowance auction, the final step in fully linking the two jurisdictions’ cap-and-trade systems.

In Lima, the top environmental officials from California, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec issued a joint statement resolving to “work together towards mid-term greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

It was a key step toward locking in long-term action and unleashing innovation in low-carbon technologies.

4) Local governments are making commitments

While countries are submitting their national goals, local and state governments are also putting their commitments to paper.

An important initiative called The Compact of States and Regions, launched in September at the U.N. Climate Summit, will aggregate and evaluate the commitments made by these governments around the world.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown’s indefatigable policy czar, Ken Alex, is spearheading a process in which local, state and regional leaders around the world will be invited to sign their own climate agreement. It would require them to either cut total emissions by at least 80 percent below 1990 levels, or per-capita emissions to below two tons, by 2050.

Thankfully, states, provinces, and cities are not waiting for the U.N. or their national governments to act. These leaders are restless and motivated – and they realize that the future of people and the planet are at stake.

As my friend Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment, said time and again in Lima: “We’re going to do this.”

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