USA -States prepare to rise to CO2 challenge as Senate climate bill collapses by Suzanne Goldenberg

5/5/2010 Guardian The collapse of an energy reform proposal in Congress last week could return power to north America’s historic actors on climate change: the regions.In Washington, even Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats are reluctant to take up
proposals in Congress that would put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions —
prompting the sole Republican ally to withdraw his support.
In Ottawa, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, has adopted an action plan
on climate change that would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions
over the next decade.
By default, that leaves regional governments as the drivers for tougher action
on climate change in what is now becoming a familiar role, the White House
“If the states hadn’t taken the positions they have in the last four or five
years we wouldn’t have any programmes in place,” Carol Browner, the White House
climate adviser, told reporters recently.
The power of regional governments to deal with climate change is coming into
sharper focus because of the lack of progress on national and international
agreements to deal with climate change – and because it is under threat. The
climate proposals due to be unveiled before the Senate would strip state
authorities of their power to act on climate change.
In a recent conference call with reporters, environmental authorities from a
number of states argued their policies had helped set the pace for reform on a
national stage, prodding the federal government forward and serving as a test
lab for new policies.
Though Washington and Ottawa have yet to pass cap-and-trade legislation, 23 US
states and four Canadian provinces have already put a price on carbon. Between
them, the carbon cutting regimes will eventually cover half of America’s
population and about a third of its emissions and about three-quarters of
Canada’s population and half of its emissions.
“The bottom line here is that the federal government needs to explicitly
recognise the value of state programmes,” Mary Nichols, who heads California’s
air resources board, told reporters.
After leading the way on emissions cuts and vehicle exhaust standards,
California is now looking at measures to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions
from the plastic components used in car interiors. The state has also set high
energy efficiency standards for flatscreen TVs.
Even some of the states that have not formally signed on to cap and trade are
also moving away from fossil fuels. Colorado this month adopted a plan to meet
30% of its energy needs from renewable sources like wind and solar power by
2020. Arizona has put restrictions on wood burning fireplaces.
State authorities say such forward-looking policies simply make economic sense.
Nichols said California’s climate law, which called for 25% reduction in
greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, had led to the creation of 500,000 new green
jobs in the state.
The same incentives hold true north of the border. Quebec, for example, has been
relentlessly talking up its green credentials to help market its zero emissions
hydro-electric power to north-eastern states. The provincial premier, Jean
Charest, argues that the decentralised nature of authority in Canada and the US
established regional governments as natural leaders.
“Regional governments everywhere account for 50% to 80% of what will be done to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “We are the ones that are going to be
the operating arm.”
Quebec, thanks to its riches in emissions-free hydro, already had a head start
in reducing its carbon footprint. Its per capita emissions of carbon dioxide are
11 tonnes – about half of the Canadian average.
For the last few years, Quebec has levied a small tax on petrol to help fund
public transit and is facing pressure to raise the charge in the next budget.
The province raised the bar even further at the Copenhagen summit by setting the
most ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in North America, a
20% cut from 1990 levels by 2020. A month later, Quebec signed on to
California’s stringent car standards raising fuel efficiency and reducing
greenhouse gas emissions in exhaust.
Montreal, whose greater metropolitan area is home to about 5 million people, is
also playing a leading role. Its motorists have long boycotted big gas guzzlers
in favour of smaller more economical cars, and Montreal is one of a handful of
north American cities with an efficient public transit system. The city has a
30km/h speed limit and has banned idling cars, unless the temperature drops far
below zero. It will outlaw dumping paper and other recyclables or organic waste
in landfill sites from 2013. It pioneered the Bixi bike sharing scheme, which it
is now exporting to London, Melbourne, Boston and Minneapolis.
Charest and others say the division of powers in America and Canada lends itself
to regional initiative. “It makes a lot of sense for provinces and states to act
because they do have most of the jurisdiction to action on climate change. They
have exclusive jurisdiction over energy, on transportation, on urban sprawl, on
agriculture — basically over everything that emits C02,” Ribaux said.
Cities are even keener. San Francisco now requires all new buildings to be
fitted with charging outlets for electric cars. Chicago now has 88 LEED standard
green buildings, and the small city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has 44. London,
Ontario, has banned bottled water. Montreal’s mayor Gerald Tremblay wanders the
historic city hall building switching off the chandeliers. “I’m always telling
them, you don’t need them on. It’s light outside,” he says.
Are such regional initiatives enough on their own to compensate for the lack of
action by federal government? Quebec’s Charest, who has put the green economy at
the core of his premiership, won’t go quite that far. “Keeping to 2C [rise in
global temperatures] through regional arrangements would be pretty tough,” he
But while they will not, on their own, prevent the most dangerous effects of
climate change, the three regional cap-and-trade regimes would manage to
stabilise US emissions, said Franz Litz who heads the state climate programme at
the World Resources Institute.
“It is a significant amount of reduction, but it is not enough to get us where
we want to go,” said Litz. “It is not the answer, but it is the start.”
He said the regional initiatives suggested states would continue pressing for
action on climate change. Such efforts slowed over the last year with states
looking to Congress to take the lead on energy reform. “If it becomes clear that
[as we are] not going to get something in this Congress I think we will see
states evaluating their next moves,” he said.
And in staking its leadership on climate, regional players could help pull other
parts of Canada and the US in a greener direction. “The states are the ones with
boots on the ground,” said Vicki Arroyo, director of the Georgetown University
climate centre.

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