OPINION: State and regional governments – the unsung heroes of climate action?

by Tim Ash Vie | The Climate Group
Tuesday, 29 October 2019 15:30 GMT

A transit bus and cyclist make their way along a city street in downtown Los Angeles, California, U.S., October 16, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many states and regions have already met or exceeded their 2020 climate targets – and are in fact decarbonising faster than national governments

Tim Ash Vie is Director of The Under 2 Coalition at The Climate Group.

We are entering the critical climate decade. Science tells us that by 2030 carbon emissions globally need to be halved and reach ‘net-zero’ by 2050. The immediacy of the challenge is evident: coverage of alarming weather events brings to life the human cost of inaction, on the streets protesters of all ages call for urgent action. Meanwhile distant conferences bring dismal headlines of inaction in the face of an existential threat. 

Yet closer to home there is proof that practical steps are being taken.

Since 2015, a group of ambitious state and regional governments have come together in the Under2 Coalition, committed to reducing their emissions to under two tons of carbon per head by 2050 to achieve a world of under two degrees of warming. 

This group of states and regions – places like California, Catalonia and Jalisco in Mexico - are taking steps to reduce emissions and prepare for social changes that economic shift will bring. With a combined population of over 800 million they are demonstrating that wholescale policy shifts in key areas of the economy are possible.

They can do this because they have substantive powers over sectors like transport, waste, land use and energy. And because they are closer to citizens than national governments, they can be agile and responsive in implementing climate measures. 

States and regions have goals for net-zero emissions by 2050

Getting to net-zero emissions by 2050 (or earlier) is the benchmark for ambition and many governments are making this commitment. This September, Scotland committed to becoming a net-zero society by 2045 – five years before the rest of the UK.

Many governments are exploring carbon taxes

Placing a cost on burning fossil fuels is crucial to cutting emissions. But in doing so, governments have to reconcile the cost burden with the social impact. Fuel tax protests have dogged the French government for a year now. By contrast, in 2008 British Columbia implemented North America’s first broad-based carbon tax and used the revenue to support low carbon measures and to reduce costs for the less well off. The province has since outpaced the rest of Canada both on emissions reduction and GDP growth.

Energy efficient buildings are becoming the norm

Around 30-40% of the world’s emissions come from buildings. In Lombardy, one of the most populous regions in Italy, “nearly zero-energy buildings” have been introduced. Sustainable, energy efficient homes have become the mandatory standard of the construction industry. Energy consumption has been reduced by two thirds per square meter in new or renovated buildings. Certification has been introduced to provide data on where energy efficiency improvements can be made with over 2 million buildings now certified under the scheme.

Many are investing in zero-emissions transport and infrastructure

With 46 percent of Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from vehicles, the state announced the largest zero-emissions school bus initiative in the US; pledging to replace 13,000 diesel buses with electric alternatives by 2030. Calculations show that if just 75 buses can be replaced by EVs, 36 million fewer pounds of greenhouse gases would be emitted annually. Virginia now has one of the cleanest transportation systems in the U.S. 

States and regions provide a global picture of action through disclosure

States and regions of the Under2 Coalition are expected to disclose their climate actions, targets and progress annually – a vital process to understand the gap between what is being delivered and what still needs to be done. The most ambitious governments know transparency drives action and we can see that many states and regions have already met or exceeded their 2020 climate targets – and are in fact decarbonising faster (6.2% a year to 2050) than national governments (3.2% a year) on average.

These examples show that change at pace and scale is possible.

As we work to December’s UN climate change conference in Chile, it is in the interests of all involved - the UN, national governments as well as their own city and local authorities – to take inspiration from ambitious states and regions to collectively tackle our global climate challenge.