Climate proposals due to be unveiled before the Senate would strip 23 US states of their power to act on climate change
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 4 May 2010 13.28 BST
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 admits.
"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 said.
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.