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As Trump doubles down on leaving Paris agreement, cities and states recommit to climate action

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On Monday, while senior White House adviser Gary Cohn was busy dispelling rumors that the Trump administration might reverse course on its decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, leaders from around the world descended on New York City with a clear message for the beginning of NYC Climate Week: cities, states, and businesses are ready to move forward with climate action with or without the Trump administration’s support.

Cities and states can make a profound difference, no question,” California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said during an event held Monday by C40 Cities, a coalition of international cities dedicated to local climate action. “We can’t do it all,but we can do what is fundamental — make the shift in thinking.”

And while local leaders did not release any new details or pledges on Monday, instead using the opportunity underscore commitments and highlight new initiatives, a report released in conjunction with Climate Week suggests that cities, states, and businesses are already on track to make up for half of the emissions reductions the United States promised in Paris.

Since Trump announced at the beginning of June that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement — an international accord in which more than 190 nations agreed to work to limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C (3.6°F) — more than 300 cities, states, and businesses have made independent commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the Paris agreement.

In July, hundreds of those cities, states, and businesses, collectively known as the We Are Still In coalition, announced their intention to measure their emissions reductions and present a compilation of the United States’ sub-national commitments to the United Nations during the upcoming climate conference in Bonn.

Critics of the We Are Still In coalition argue that without an overarching framework for emissions reductions — such as that offered by the federal government under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which mandated emissions reductions for power plants across the country — cities, states, and businesses will be forced to tackle climate change through an inefficient patchwork of regional solutions. But according to a new report from NewClimate Institute and The Climate Group, existing sub-national commitments could mitigate some of consequences of the Trump administration’s federal climate policy by accounting for almost half of the United States’ climate commitments under the Paris agreement.

The report, which analyzed existing commitments from 22 states, 54 cities, and 250 U.S.-based businesses, found that those commitments put the United States on pace for emissions reductions of between 12 to 14 percent by 2025 — roughly half of the 26 to 28 percent reduction over 2005 emission levels pledged by the Obama administration during the 2015 Paris climate conference.

The report singles out large states like New York and California as especially important in helping sub-national bodies make up for some of the federal government’s shortcoming on climate policy, simply because large states are home to a lot of people, and thus wield more comparative power when they enact climate-friendly policies. California and New York are the country’s first and third largest economies, respectively, generating more economic activity than some small countries — meaning their policies have a great deal of influence on how the market responds to renewable technology like solar energy or electric vehicles.

California’s state legislature, for instance, voted earlier this summer to extend its cap-and-trade program, frequently heralded as the state’s signature climate policy. The extension requires polluters to pay for carbon pollution through 2030, and passed with bipartisan support, despite the criticism it received from social justice groups for weakening local regulation of air pollution through the California Air Resources Board. Brown has also been in talks with China about linking California’s carbon trading market, the largest in the country, with China’s emerging market.

But if California has been a beacon of state potential in the Trump era, it has also suffered some significant setbacks. Just last week, the state legislature failed to pass a bill that would have increased the state’s renewable energy mandate 10 percent by 2030, and would have set the state on course to get all of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. After sailing through the Senate in May of this year, the bill’s passage seemed all but certain until utilities, joined by some labor unions, threw their weight against the bill just days before the state legislature’s session was set to expire. In the end, the bill never made it to the floor for a vote, though legislators claim they will reconsider similar legislation next year.

Even if states falter, however, the report from NewClimate Institute and The Climate Group found that cities are actually the most ambitious sub-national actors when it comes to climate action, with more than 50 cities committing to emissions reductions in line with the United States’ previous commitments under the Paris agreement.

New York City, for instance, recently announced a new mandate that will compel building operators to update building efficiency — by replacing windows, or renovating old buildings to adhere to modern building codes — and create fossil fuel use targets that will go into effect in 2030. According to Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), these updates will have the same carbon-saving effect as taking 900,000 cars off the road for one year.

The grassroots in this country are not only speaking, they are acting,” de Blasio said on Monday.

Though cities largely control only hyper-local policies — like building efficiency, city land use laws, or the makeup of a fleet of city vehicles — they can often have an outsized influence on climate policy due to their population density and ability to influence policies at the state or regional level. Globally, cities account for more than half of the world’s population, and are the source of 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions; thus, the energy efficiency of buildings in New York City, or a fleet of electric municipal vehicles in Los Angeles, can have a climate impact that reaches far beyond a city’s limits.

Unlike national governments, sub-national actors are not allowed to join the official mechanism of the Paris agreement, meaning that they will likely be relegated to the sidelines when the United Nation’s climate change conference in Bonn begins this November. Without an official seat at the table, it will be difficult for cities and states to steer certain parts of the agreement — such as mechanisms for reporting emissions reductions, or funding for climate migitagion projects — one way or another. Still, climate experts credited a strong commitment to climate action by cities in 2015 as key to bringing national actors on board with the eventual Paris climate agreement — meaning that anyone who underestimates the power of nonofficial actors to influence high-level climate action does so at their own risk.

“Our path was very clearly set in Paris, and nothing that is happening at the federal or state level can stop a city that is still making its decisions in transportation and land planning,” Steve Adler, mayor of Austin, Texas (D), said on Monday. “There is still a lot of control and a lot of opportunities for cities.”

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