Within the current political climate, which has been characterized by a lack of federal leadership on environmental and climate policy in the face of severe need for action, we have seen state governments step up to take the lead. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in 2018, projected intensifying negative effects of climate change throughout all socioeconomic sectors in our nation’s immediate future. And yet, the federal government has continued to deregulate the fossil fuel industry and actively promote oil, coal and gas development, while rolling back critical environmental protections.
The current administration has also withdrawn U.S. leadership at the international level, pulling out of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, which allowed countries to set their own goals to reduce emissions and keep global temperature rise below 1.5ºC. This prompted U.S. states to take matters into their own hands and commit to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of 25 governors founded in 2017, who remain committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with Paris Agreement objectives. These states represent 55% of the U.S. population, and 60% of the U.S. GDP, and between 2005 and 2017, they collectively reduced their emissions by 16%, compared to only 7% reductions in the rest of the nation.
So, what does this mean today for states that have committed to reaching their emissions reduction goals? Representatives from the executive agencies of four states joined the State Carbon Pricing Network on Wednesday, January 8th to talk about the actions their respective states have been taking at the executive level to reduce emissions and make the transition to a greener nation.
Webinar speakers included Sustainability and Resilience Officer Laura Tabor and Environmental Protections Director Sandra Ely from New Mexico, Climate Coordinator at Hawaii’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands Anukriti Hittle, Maryland Department of Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles, and the Executive Director of the Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board Will Seuffert. Below is a recap of the webinar, which you can also watch in full.
New Mexico’s current administration recently began prioritizing strategic climate policies, an important demonstration of environmental commitment from a state that relies heavily on oil and gas production. In January 2019, newly elected Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham signed Executive Order 2019-003, which “set an initial trajectory and gave New Mexico a lot of climate priorities,” according to Laura Tabor. It also established the Interagency Climate Change Task Force. “One thing that really stood out to me were the new ideas that come to light when you bring different agencies together that maybe haven’t talked about climate in the same room before,” Tabor stated regarding the interdisciplinary nature of the Task Force. This past November, the Task Force released its first report, which outlined emission trends along with adaptation and resilience policy measures to reduce emissions.
Historical trends in New Mexico have shown a large amount of emissions deriving from oil and gas industries, the transportation sector, and the electric sector. According to Sandra Ely, “oil and gas are the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Mexico, so it’s important that we address that head on.” However, the Grisham administration understands that removing these industries from the economy is not yet politically feasible since, as Ely states, oil and gas are “really important to New Mexico as far as jobs and general fund money that we all benefit from.”
Therefore, Grisham will focus on greening these industries by reducing methane and HFC emissions through a more comprehensive regulatory framework rather than eliminating them entirely. “Right now we know that there are excessive volatile organic compound emissions and methane emissions that should not be happening, that could dramatically be reduced,” she added.
Considering this, under the new Task Force there is a current goal to reduce overall emissions 45% below 2005 levels by 2030 through a variety of measures that include reductions throughout every emitting sector — one of the most ambitious goals for a state currently dependent on fossil fuels. The Interagency Climate Task Force has outlined a number of methods through which they plan to do so. In the electricity sector, New Mexico plans to become more energy efficient through more equitable, distributed, and utility-scale generation.
In the transportation sector, New Mexico recently announced its ambition to become a Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) and Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) state — policies that require the automobile industry to sell vehicles with certain emission standards. “We anticipate going forward with rulemaking on that this year in compliance with California standards,” says Ely.
The New Mexico report also considers solutions through creating more modern and efficient infrastructure, reducing extreme fires and natural disasters, and increasing carbon sequestration. The state hopes these economy-wide measures will enable them to reach the critical emission reductions objectives they have set.
Hawaii is another state championing climate policy, and is particularly invested considering its unique geographical position, which leaves it extremely vulnerable to some of the worst consequences of climate change. “We are the only island state in the U.S. and the most isolated island chain in the world, about 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland,” says Anukriti Hittle, recognizing the necessity for a strategy to address climate change that differs from those of other U.S. states.
Hawaii has seen hotter days than ever before, with an increase of approximately 2.5°F between 1950 and 1980, and unprecedented heat is expected to continue into the future. Decreases in precipitation have caused drier weather overall, the worst of which were noticed in Hilo, where annual precipitation has decreased by almost 20 inches since 1950. “This means worse conditions for Hawaii wildfires and more erosion when it does rain,” Hittle states. Sea level rise is also of particular concern for Hawaii executives, according to Hittle, as it has caused more frequent flooding than ever before and has begun to destroy coastal infrastructure. “The projection is that we will see rising waters and that we will see them sooner than expected,” she added.
The executive branch in Hawaii is adamant about finding policy solutions to climate issues. Not only was Hawaii one of the first states to join the U.S. Climate Alliance in 2017, but soon after it established the Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission, which is currently “looking at adaptation to sea level rise and its impacts and mitigation of emission from transportation,” Hittle states, and is staffed by the heads of executive departments and legislative committees. She stressed that the Climate Change Commission is dedicated to looking at climate issues “in a manner that is clean, equitable and resilient,” to ensure that solutions are beneficial for all Hawaiians. Moreover, Hawaii committed to becoming carbon net negative by 2045.
Mitigation solutions from Hawaii’s executive branch are focused primarily on the transportation sector, as it is the largest polluter in the Hawaiian economy. With the ultimate goal of zero-carbon mobility, the executive branch has a plethora of initiatives in various stages of the implementation process. According to Hittle, achieving zero carbon mobility constitutes “employing everything from more efficient vehicles to no vehicles at all, and using modernized parking policies, effective transit, enlightened land use planning and so on.”
Fundamentally, it is clear that Hawaii’s executive branch is focused on reducing emissions and prohibiting the worst effects of climate change from coming to fruition through these mitigation tactics.
Maryland is uniquely situated to tackle climate change, and executive actors in the state are making strides to combat environmental issues through policy, both at the state and regional level.
Maryland’s governor is Republican Larry Hogan, and, therefore, the need for bipartisan work towards climate solutions has become increasingly important. This is especially distinctive considering the current divided political climate, according to Secretary Ben Grumbles.
The state currently has a “40 by 30” plan to reduce emissions 40% below 2006 levels by 2030, and it is currently ahead of its 2020 goal to be 25% below 2006. However, as stated by Grumbles, Maryland will need “a comprehensive strategy and plan” for transportation and agricultural sustainability in order to reach future objectives. This approach is laid out in the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act (GGRA) of 2019, which projects 80-95% emission reductions by 2050 in addition to the 40 by 30 goals.
On January 8th, in furtherance of these targets, Governor Larry Hogan introduced a clean and renewable energy package that “builds upon the existing and aggressive renewable portfolio standard for the state,” which he hopes will help Maryland meet their ambitious goals, says Grumbles.
Maryland has also focused its climate policy through two major regional initiatives, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). The former is a program that puts a price on electric sector emissions through a cap-and-invest system in ten Northeastern states. “Maryland is very proud of their strong partnership and engagement in RGGI,” says Grumbles. Although the price is currently set quite low at approximately $5.50 per short ton, he emphasized that this should not be demoralizing, but rather exciting, as RGGI is the first example of states stepping up in a bipartisan way to tackle climate change and is only growing and becoming increasingly ambitious. He added, “the participating states in RGGI have realized that now is … the time to be considering complementary policies that are companions to get greater reductions and not rely solely on one particular strategy.”
The latter regional initiative, TCI, is currently in the works, and will be enforced by 2022 at the earliest. TCI plans to “apply the lessons learned and the progress we’re seeing in RGGI,” according to Grumbles, by regulating the transportation sector through a cap-and-invest program in many of the same northeastern states as RGGI. “One of the keys to any successful climate-related regional collaboration is frequent engagement by people on behalf of the different agencies and executive branch to build trust and camaraderie,” says Grumbles, and he hopes that TCI will adhere to these characteristics. Maryland is very excited at the prospect of expanding their regional environmental collaboration.
“Maryland is not only focused on the Chesapeake Bay, but on a clean energy economy and living up to our commitments and setting an example with other states on real climate progress,” Grumbles concluded.
Minnesota is a state that is up-and-coming in its climate initiatives under Governor Tim Walz. The state was not able to reach its Next Generation Energy Act goals for 2015, proposed in 2007, but is still striving to reach its 2025 goals through new policy initiatives.
Greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota are primarily from the electricity and transportation sectors. Since 2005, Minnesota has decreased electrical emissions by 29%, and therefore, according to Will Seuffert, the Minnesota executive branch will now be focusing policy initiatives around the transportation sector, which has only seen an 8% decrease since 2005. One transportation initiative, supported by Governor Walz, is Clean Cars Minnesota, a program to adopt LEV and ZEV standards in a similar manner to New Mexico.
Despite not reaching its full Next Generation Energy Act objectives, Minnesota has been able to increase its renewable energy generation from 12% to 25% since 2008, and decrease its coal power generation from 58% to 37%. “We have more than doubled Minnesota’s renewable energy,” states Sueffert, “and we’re exceeding the targets in law for renewable generation.” 2030 goals are even more ambitious, with a hope that renewable energy will be 45% of emissions by that year.
The executive branch is taking many steps to promote clean energy under the One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy. Although this has not been passed by the legislature yet, the executive branch is working closely with legislators to move it forward in the upcoming session. The One Minnesota Path is grounded in three measures, including the Clean Energy First regulatory mechanism, which requires utilities to include clean energy in new facilities; the Energy Optimization program, which allows for more efficient fuel switching and sets energy efficiency goals; and the executive goal to be 100% carbon free by 2050.
Lastly, Governor Tim Walz also signed Executive Order 19-37 in December 2019 with two major purposes. The first is to create a Climate Change Subcabinet, chaired by the MPCA Commissioner, which is set to create an annual update that includes policies and strategies for the state to meet their Next Generation Energy goals, as well as other suggestions to increase state resilience. This subcabinet also engages the public through a variety of methods. Sueffert stated, “the Governor has made it very clear that he wants state government to engage the public in working to build consensus and collaborate on come of these policies,” for having the public on board is essential in building support for climate policies. “It’s a challenge for us in government to connect with people, and we have to do our part to create opportunities,” he said.
The second purpose of the executive order is the creation of the Climate Change Advisory Council, which includes 15 members appointed by the Governor who advise the executive branch on policy while promoting equity and a just transition.
Looking towards the future
It is clear that executive branch action in New Mexico, Hawaii, Maryland, and Minnesota has been incredibly important in leading environmental initiatives, and will continue to be as enacting climate policy becomes more and more urgent.
One important conclusion agreed upon by representatives from all four states is the necessity for collaboration. Opportunities to share best practices among states and work on regional projects will become increasingly important as climate impacts become more severe and the amount of environmental policies throughout the U.S. increase.
While federal inaction on climate policy is certainly disappointing, hearing from these representatives about the measures states are taking incites great hope for the future. “State climate action is growing,” says Secretary Grumbles. “That’s the key message for folks so that people don’t get so demoralized when there’s a lack of positive action at the federal level. At the state level, states truly are stepping up and doing so in a bipartisan way.”