As Federal Climate-Fighting Tools Are Taken Away, Cities and States Step Up
Legislators in Colorado, historically a major coal state, have passed more than 50 climate-related laws since 2019. The liquor store in the farming town of Morris, Minn., cools its beer with solar power. Voters in Athens, Ohio, imposed a carbon fee on themselves. Citizens in Fairfax County, Va., teamed up for a year and a half to produce a 214-page climate action plan.
Across the country, communities and states are accelerating their efforts to fight climate change as action stalls on the national level. This week, the Supreme Court curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, one of the biggest sources of planet-warming pollution — the latest example of how the Biden administration’s climate tools are getting chipped away.
During the Trump administration, which aggressively weakened environmental and climate protections, local efforts gained importance. Now, experts say, local action is even more critical for the United States — which is second only to China in emissions — to have a chance at helping the world avert the worst effects of global warming.
This patchwork approach is no substitute for a coordinated national strategy. Local governments have limited reach, authority and funding.
But as the legislative and regulatory options available in Washington, D.C., become increasingly constrained, “States are really critical to helping the country as a whole achieve our climate goals,” said Kyle Clark-Sutton, manager of the analysis team for the United States program at RMI, a clean energy think tank. “They have a real opportunity to lead. They have been leading.”
New York and Colorado, for example, are on track to reduce electricity-related emissions 80 percent or more by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, according to new state scorecards from RMI.
By removing partisan politics from community discussions about climate policy, it’s sometimes possible to reach a consensus that’s been difficult to achieve on a national level.
That is what happened in Morris, a city of about 5,000 in Minnesota, not far from the South Dakota border. There, the University of Minnesota Morris campus leans left politically, while surrounding farming communities lean right. But both communities broadly support — and have helped to shape — the “Morris Model,” which calls for reducing energy consumption 30 percent by 2030, producing 80 percent of the county’s electricity locally by 2030 (thus guaranteeing it comes from renewable sources) and eliminating landfill waste by 2025.
“We’ve never focused on climate as being the thing to talk about, because you don’t have to,” said Blaine Hill, the city manager, noting the benefits of lower energy bills and more local economic activity from the locally produced power. “You can go around that and just start working on stuff.”
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
President Biden is pushing stronger regulations, but faces a narrow path to achieving his goals in the fight against global warming.
Morris has solar panels on its community center, library, liquor store and city hall. It has installed an electric-vehicle charging station at the grocery store and is working on a composting program. The university has solar panels on poles, high enough for cows to graze underneath, and two wind turbines.
The University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center uses wind energy to create fertilizer for crops that grow beneath the turbines — circumventing the traditional, emissions-intensive process of making fertilizer, which is normally derived from petroleum.
Mike Reese, the director of renewable energy at the research center, said it didn’t matter that he had political disagreements with Troy Goodnough, the sustainability director at the University of Minnesota Morris.
“Troy is on the more liberal side, I’m on the more conservative side,” Mr. Reese said. “But we also share the same philosophies when it comes to changing climate, resiliency, but especially on generating wealth and making our community better for the next generations.”
Mr. Goodnough said the campus often helped demonstrate technologies that were later adopted by the city. That’s helped residents to consider options they might have otherwise dismissed.
“I have people coming up to me and going: ‘Hey, how did you do that solar system on your roof?’” Mr. Hill said. “‘That looks kind of cool.’”
One advantage of community strategies is that they can be tailored to the needs of the local economy — in the case of Morris, farming.
The city has allocated $6 million to plant trees in primarily low-income neighborhoods. It has installed 40 miles of cool pavement, which can lower nighttime temperatures. And it has a plan to bring 280,000 electric vehicles to city roads by 2030.
The city council committee that developed that plan includes elected officials as well as representatives of utilities, auto manufacturers and environmental justice groups. It hosted one meeting between housing developers — who were reluctant to install electric vehicle charging stations in new buildings — and representatives from Ford and General Motors. Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari said the session seemed to help the developers realize that installing chargers was in line with market trends.
As conversations move from the municipal to state level, they tend to grow more partisan.
Colorado passed sweeping climate legislation only after Democrats gained control of both houses of the legislature in 2018. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, was elected that year on a platform of achieving 100 percent clean energy in the state by 2040, and the linchpin — 2019’s H.B. 1261, which called for reducing emissions 90 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 — passed with no Republican support.
But outside the state legislature, that law and dozens of follow-up laws drew support from some unlikely places.
KC Becker, who was the speaker of the Colorado House from 2019 to 2021, said meetings with unions representing oil and gas workers were “a huge part of getting something passed.” (Ms. Becker, now a regional administrator for the E.P.A., spoke in her capacity as a former legislator, not on behalf of the agency.) One enticement: the creation of an Office of Just Transition to help fossil fuel workers find new jobs. Lawmakers allocated $15 million to it this year.
Colorado’s largest electricity providers, Xcel Energy and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., were also on board. Both plan to close their last coal plants in the state by 2030.
Between Mr. Polis’s election and inauguration, Xcel voluntarily pledged to reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030. Lawmakers subsequently offered an incentive for other utilities: If they filed a plan that met the same mark, the state air commission would not further regulate their 2030 emissions.
“The vast majority of them ended up going beyond what the rules require,” said Will Toor, the executive director of the Colorado Energy Office. “It created a dynamic where everybody could declare victory.”
Colorado still has substantial work to do. RMI found that, while it was on track to meet its 2030 reduction target in the electricity sector, current policies would reduce its total emissions only 33 percent by 2030 — short of the 50 percent it has pledged. (That projection does not account for some recent legislation.)
The gap is in sectors like buildings and transportation, where it is harder to reduce emissions “because it takes a multitude of individual households making decisions to purchase an electric car or an electric stove or just more efficient appliances,” said Stacy Tellinghuisen, the climate policy manager for Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit that works in Colorado and six other states.
The climate plan in Fairfax County, Va., is unusual in part because it was produced by several dozen community members instead of county officials. In most cases, programs like these come from the top down.
One goal of the plan, approved in September, is to educate county residents about environmentally friendly choices they can make. Other plans include solar panels on county buildings and an electric bus pilot program.
“If the community’s not on board, you’re not going to accomplish anything other than to write a beautiful plan and have it sit on the shelf and collect dust,” said Jeffrey C. McKay, the chairman of the county board of supervisors.
A group of more than 50 residents heard from experts, examined data, debated and voted on recommendations. The document identified 12 broad strategies in five areas: buildings and energy efficiency, energy supply, transportation, waste, and natural resources. The strategies were broken into 37 recommended actions and scores of narrower “activities.”
Deb Harris, senior director for climate planning at the consulting firm ICF, said Fairfax County was an example not of a specific model every community should adopt, but rather of tailoring a process to a community. Fairfax is affluent and highly educated, with engaged residents able to spend months hashing out policy, she said.
In many other places, money and resources are major constraints.
“The fact that there’s not financial support coming to help this work is the main impediment,” said Marianne MacQueen, a council member in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which uses 80 percent renewable electricity and is trying to create a plan for reductions in other sectors. “Our staff is so stretched.”
In the absence of much federal action, the task of helping local governments act on climate is falling to independent groups.
Yellow Springs is working with Power a Clean Future Ohio, a nonprofit that doesn’t charge local governments. “The desire to do it and the actual executing on it is a whole different thing,” said Joe Flarida, the group’s executive director. Local governments have so many immediate concerns, like road repairs and public safety, that “climate goals will fall down on that list if you don’t find a way to close that gap for them.”
When the gap does close, it can be powerful.
In Athens, a college town in Ohio, 76 percent of voters agreed in 2018 to pay a carbon fee of 0.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity use, creating around $100,000 in annual revenue for renewable energy projects. A study of Athens’s greenhouse gas emissions found that, per capita, they were among the lowest in the state.
“We talk about states being the laboratories of democracy, and I think the same is likely true of local jurisdictions,” said Ms. Tellinghuisen, of Western Resource Advocates. “States can create these templates or examples and demonstrate to the federal government that progress is really possible.”