Insights from States’ Leadership in Climate Action

January 25, 2022

In 2017, in the wake of former President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, states, cities, businesses, and other non-state leaders – often referred to as “subnationals” – stepped in to fill the void. They moved swiftly with new and ambitious climate commitments and actions across the country. They also formed and expanded climate action coalitions, including the bipartisan, 25-state U.S. Climate Alliance, which is working to collectively achieve the Paris Agreement’s targets and overall net-zero emissions by mid-century; America is All In, which is aggregating and quantifying U.S. subnational climate actions across sectors; and the Under2 Coalition, which is bringing together more than 260 cities, states, and regions across the globe to keep the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement in sight. 

Now, as the U.S. federal government re-engages with the world on climate under the Biden-Harris Administration, a number of key questions warrant further attention. How are U.S. states continuing to advance climate leadership and actions? Where have states pioneered leading solutions, and where have they fallen short? What lessons can be learned from state-level climate action, and how can they be shared with other jurisdictions? 

New research from the California-China Climate Institute aims to help answer some of these inquiries. It does this by examining the climate policy portfolios of states with near- or long-term climate targets across four broad categories: a) regulations; b) market-based instruments; c) financial incentives; and d) voluntary actions. The analysis covers the major emitting sectors in the U.S., including: energy, transport, industry, buildings, and land use.  It finds, as of October 2021, twenty-eight U.S. states with near (to 2030) or long-term (post-2030) climate targets (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1:

States with Near-Term Goals                                                                                              States with Long-Term Goals 

Of these states, seventeen passed 100% clean or renewable electricity targets through legislation or executive orders; twelve enacted carbon pricing; and ten followed California’s lead in implementing a Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate.

The report finds that state-led climate action predominated in coastal states with Democratic governors, which most frequently utilized regulatory approaches, supplemented by market-based mechanisms, to achieve policy goals. It spotlights several examples of states’ spearheading robust climate actions, including: Rhode Island’s Executive Order to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030; Washington’s Clean Buildings Act with performance standards for existing buildings; Colorado’s action to drastically reduce methane emissions; and Hawaii’s prioritization of nature-based solutions, among many others. 

Accompanying this research is the third edition of the States’ Climate Action Map, which visually depicts policy portfolios states are pursuing to achieve their near- and long-term climate goals. The analysis also builds on the California-China Climate Institute’s existing work to identify pathways to achieve carbon neutrality in the U.S. and China. 

Additionally, this research highlights four key areas in which states’ can strengthen climate policy: 

  1. Equity and social benefits - centering these at the heart of climate policy. 
  2. Evaluation and progress tracking - understanding baselines and tracking progress.
  3. Building climate resilience - focusing on preparedness in addition to mitigation.
  4. Federal and state coordination - enhancing the state-federal nexus and coordination opportunities for accelerated results. 

To learn more, read the full report here.