Most innovative and ambitious policymaking efforts related to climate change in the United States are developing at regional, state, and local levels. A growing number of states, municipalities and firms across the country are initiating climate change action beyond requirements mandated by the federal government. State governments have been particularly active in their attempts to address climate change concerns and various aspects of contemporary energy production and use. As of May 2006, the Pew Center on Climate Change lists 48 case studies in 31 states of relevance to climate change mitigation. Combined, these efforts have measurable effects on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, as many U.S. states are very large GHG emitters.
In short, states’ influence in U.S. environmental policymaking is significant. State officials and policymakers can address GHG emissions directly through policy measures addressing GHG emissions from power plants, transportation, land use and planning, agriculture and forestry, waste management, and public sector operations and spending. In this respect, states serve as “policy laboratories” for climate change mitigation and adaptation and, in the process, may exercise political pressure on future federal climate policy “from below.” In addition, states implement many federal environmental laws, issue most environmental permits, and conduct a majority of environmental enforcement actions. While Canadian provinces also hold much environmental policy authority vis-à-vis the Canadian federal government, they have generally been more reluctant to initiate substantial climate policy efforts of their own.
Since the late 1990s, there has been a noticeable expansion of state policymaking on climate change and energy issues. State officials have also initiated several collaborative actions around climate policy in recent years, sometimes including participation of Canadian provinces in their regional initiatives. Examples of multi-state cooperation include the West Coast Initiative (California, Oregon, and Washington), the Southwest Climate Change Initiative (Arizona and New Mexico), and the Powering the Plains Initiative (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Manitoba). The most ambitious regional efforts, however, are developing in Northeast North America, and several of these efforts include participation by both U.S. states and Canadian provinces.
This article briefly assesses two major regional climate change policy initiatives in the Northeast: the 2001 Climate Change Action Plan of the New England Governors Conference and the Easter Canadian Premiers (NEG-ECP) and its implementation, and ongoing efforts to establish a regional cap-and-trade scheme for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). In addition, the article reviews the development of growing municipal and civil society engagement on climate change issues and GHG mitigation in the region. It concludes with a discussion of possible ramifications and limitations of climate change policymaking in Northeastern North America.
Climate Change Action in the Northeast
Regional cooperation among states in the Northeast includes two separate, but related and overlapping, initiatives. First, a regional Climate Change Action Plan was signed by the governors of six New England states and the premiers of five Eastern Canadian provinces in 2001. Second, RGGI, initiated in 2003, seeks to establish a cap-and-trade scheme for CO2 emissions from power plants from Maryland to Maine.
New England governors and Eastern Canadian premiers
The collaborative effort by the New England governors and the Eastern Canadian premiers includes all six New England states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) and five Eastern Canadian provinces (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Quebec). Under the joint 2001 Climate Change Action Plan, participating states and provinces commit to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 and to achieve 10 percent reductions below 1990 levels by 2020. The plan calls for ultimate emissions reduction to levels that do not pose a threat to the global climate system. According to an official estimate, achieving this goal would require a 75 to 85 percent reduction from 2001 emissions levels. The plan and its goals have been repeatedly reaffirmed by the region’s governors and premiers since 2001, most recently in May of 2006.
The NEG-ECP plan outlines nine general actions and goals pursuant to the regional emissions reduction targets:
- Establish a regional standardized GHG emissions inventory
- Establish a plan for reducing GHG emissions and conserving energy
- Promote public awareness of climate change issues
- State and provincial governments to lead by example
- Reduce GHG emissions from the electricity sector
- Reduce total energy demand through conservation
- Reduce and/or adapt to negative social, economic, and environmental impacts
- Decrease the transportation sector’s growth in GHG emissions
- Create of a regional emissions registry and explore a trading mechanism.
The plan also outlines 34 more specific policy recommendations for the implementation of these nine action steps. Some of these recommendations involve building regional institutions for continued policymaking and implementation review. Others call for policymaking by states in support of the regional policy goals and emissions reduction targets. In addition, the plan’s recommendations contain provisions for outreach efforts to private and public sector groups and the general public. Since 2001, state and provincial officials have worked to develop and implement state/provincial level policies and programs in support of the regional plan.
To date, state and provincial officials have focused their attention on the launching of relatively small-scale abatement programs. Efforts have focused on “smart growth” and “no-regrets” measures seeking to reduce both public financial costs and GHG emissions. Examples of such measures include the use of more efficient light emitting diodes in traffic lights, promoting the purchase of Energy Star products in state governments, and switching to more energy-efficient vehicles in state vehicle fleets. Though relatively small in size and ambition, such programs can save states millions of dollars in public expenditures annually and contribute to reductions in regional GHG emissions. Figure 1 shows the NEG-ECP GHG reduction goals of the New England states as well as those set individually by New York and New Jersey.
State efforts and accomplishments to date vary substantially, however. In 2003, Maine was first to write the NEG-ECP goals into state law. In 2004, Connecticut passed similar legislation. Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and Massachusetts have issued state-level climate change action plans explicitly designed to achieve NEG-ECP goals. Some regulatory progress can also be noted in efforts to cap and reduce CO2 emissions from power plants in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. In addition, attorney generals of several states are participating in lawsuits against the U.S. federal government for failure to regulate CO2 emissions. In general, the five Eastern Canadian provinces have been less aggressive in the development of climate policy than the New England states.
As of March 2006, all New England states except New Hampshire had adopted mandatory renewable portfolio standards. All six New England states have created public benefits funds designed to support energy efficiency and/or renewable energy development. Yet, old oil- and coal-fired power plants remain in use across New England. For example, Environment Northeast estimates that replacing such facilities with more efficient natural gas plants could reduce Connecticut’s GHG emissions by 60 percent. Increased use of renewable energy sources would allow for even more dramatic cuts in GHG emissions. Yet, local and political opposition to Cape Wind—a proposed large-scale wind farm in Nantucket Sound, Massachusetts—demonstrates that the expansion of renewable energy capacity can be highly contentious. Transportation generates approximately one-third of regional GHG emissions and increases in transportation-related emissions alone make the NEG-ECP emission reduction goal for 2010 difficult to meet.
However, eight Northeastern states have announced their intention to adopt California’s vehicle standards for CO2 if these survive legal challenges. In fact, some states in the region, including Massachusetts, are required under state law to adopt developing California vehicle emissions standards.
RGGI was proposed by Governor Pataki (New York) in April of 2003, when he invited states from Maryland to Maine to participate in discussions about a regional cap-and-trade system. Current RGGI members are Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Maryland also recently announced its intention to join RGGI. Massachusetts and Rhode Island officials actively participated in the design of RGGI, but have so far not joined due to gubernatorial resistance. Many RGGI participants and observers, however, expect these two states to eventually join. Unlike the NEG-ECP program, RGGI does not include any Canadian provinces, but Canadian provincial officials have observed RGGI meetings (see Figure 2).
RGGI is intended to create a regional emissions inventory, registry, and trading mechanism for CO2 emissions from power plants. After two years of negotiations among state officials and extensive debate, data gathering, and analytical modeling, a joint Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the governors of the seven participating states in December 2005. The fundamental rules of the trading scheme are outlined in a “model rule,” which was finalized in August of 2006. Most of the 105 submitted comments came from the energy sector and environmental and public interest non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A few large energy users including WalMart also submitted opinions. The detailed nature of many of the comments illustrates the seriousness with which many firms and NGOs from both within and outside the region are engaging the RGGI process.
The final model rule will need to be implemented by all participating states pursuant to their state laws and regulatory processes. While some states plan to issue RGGI-compliant regulations through the executive branch, others will initiate legislative action. Under RGGI, states will determine which emissions sources should be regulated and set the regional emissions cap, or the maximum amount of CO2 emissions allowed from all the regulated sources. States will issue one allowance for each ton of CO2 emissions up to the amount of the total emissions cap. Each power plant is required to have enough allowances to cover its CO2 emissions during each compliance period, if necessary by entering the market to purchase additional allowances from others. RGGI is scheduled to operate on the basis of three-year compliance periods, beginning in 2009.
RGGI, as outlined in the model rule, is designed to stabilize CO2 emissions from the power sector from the start of the program in 2009 through 2015. From 2015 through 2018, each state’s annual CO2 emissions budget will decline by 2.5 percent per year, resulting in a total reduction of 10 percent by 2019. In addition, some emissions reductions under the program can be achieved outside the electricity sector, through emissions offset projects. As RGGI has been developed and debated, much attention has been paid to the costs of the program to the region’s firms and households through increased prices for electricity. The effect on residential rates is projected to be less than 1.5 percent through 2021. However, energy-efficiency components built into the program could in fact result in an overall positive economic effect.
The economic models on which the RGGI estimates are based are rather conservative regarding its economic benefits. Brome identifies two critical omissions in the models predicting a negative economic impact from RGGI. First, technological innovation may absorb some of the cost of reducing emissions. Many models predicted costly effects from the national sulfur dioxide (SO2) trading scheme, but the program created incentives for industry to develop new technologies, which reduced their compliance costs. Similarly, regional costs from the cap on nitrogen oxides (NOX) and trading scheme have been much lower than initially predicted. Second, intensified technological innovation may mean that companies in the region benefit from these product developments as markets for low-emissions technology grow.
RGGI moreover includes a price safety valve, which is currently proposed to expand the compliance period if the allowance price equals or exceeds $10/ton (in 2005 dollars) for twelve months (following an initial 14-month “market settling” period at the beginning of each compliance period). This provision has been heavily criticized by many environmental groups for weakening the program, but is designed to mitigate sharp price increases. Breslow and Goodstein, however, show that of the 25 largest industries in Massachusetts (accounting for 81 percent of the state’s total output of CO2) only eight have electricity costs over 1 percent of their total operating costs. As projected rate increases from Massachusetts participation in RGGI would amount to less than 0.1 percent, they conclude that the economic impact of higher electricity rates to these companies would be modest even in the absence of technological development. Nevertheless, major Massachusetts-based companies such as Raytheon have lobbied aggressively against RGGI.
Municipal Policy Developments
Legendary Massachusetts native and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, liked to say, “all politics is local.” Many mayors in the Northeast are among the over 230 that have signed Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ initiative calling on cities to meet or exceed U.S. commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (e.g. a 7 percent reduction in GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2012), and lobbying the federal government to enact more stringent GHG legislation. Evidence that many public officials and citizens in the region want more stringent climate change policy can also be found in the 60-plus cities that have joined the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) and its Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) campaign. ICLEI was founded in 1993 to aid in the development of local climate policy through sharing information and other collaborative efforts.
Many municipalities in the Northeast are developing and implementing climate change action plans pursuant to the CCP program. Local officials cite multiple reasons for taking such action, including the responsibility to “contribute to the cumulative solution to climate change”. Many Northeastern CCP members initiated climate change action before, or around the same time as, state-level climate policies were developing. While municipal policies can supplement state action, the two governance levels have not been linked through any formal cooperative agreements in the region. Yet, municipal climate change action plans often note their intentions to lobby for state and federal climate policy through their local actions. Municipal leaders also use local newspapers to call on state and regional leaders to take supportive actions on a larger geographical scale.
Municipalities, like states, choose to lead by example and design various policy solutions to the environmental and energy challenges they face. Doing so, municipalities also tend to focus on “no-regrets” measures designed to reduce GHG emission through energy-saving measures. For example, municipalities and firms can collaboratively engage in green building practices and the registration of green buildings under the U.S. Green Building Council. These efforts are based on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, a voluntary national standard. Practical actions involve installing photovoltaic systems, constructing with recycled materials, maximizing daylight, minimizing heat/cool air losses, and using sensor lighting. Boston, for example, has included in its zoning code that that all large projects built in the city should be LEED certifiable.
Another example of a municipality leading by example is Hull, located on the coast of Massachusetts. In 2001, Hull officials commissioned the construction of a municipally owned 660-kilowatt wind turbine. The turbine powers the city’s streetlights and traffic lights, with the remaining power up for sale. The turbine saves the small town about $185,000 each year and averts hundreds of tons of CO2 emissions. In 2006, Hull erected a second, much larger municipal wind turbine, projected to save the city another half a million dollars annually. Officials from a host of other municipalities and colleges are exploring Hull’s successes, constructing turbines of their own, commissioning local wind studies, and working with wind power advocates to assess investment opportunities, and possible turbine sites. Hull and other communities are seeking expertise and financial support for wind power investments offered by wind power advocates, state renewable portfolio standards, public benefits funds, and university programs.
An expanding regional network of environmental NGOs, the New England Climate Coalition, has coalesced around climate change action. This network includes Public Interest Research Groups, state chapters of Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club, dozens of local environmental groups, and relatively new NGOs focused on climate change such as Clean Air—Cool Planet and Environment Northeast. Coalition members prepare well-researched assessments and policy reports, and coordinate lobbying and public awareness campaigns. Many NGO campaigns invoke expected negative effects of climate change on iconic aspects of New England life, such as fall foliage, maple syrup production, and skiing. Grant-making foundations with headquarters or offices in the region are working closely with NGOs on their many activities.
Many of the region’s universities are expanding their climate change initiatives. Working with the New England Board of Higher Education, NEG-ECP officials also sponsor a university-outreach program. To date, more than 130 universities in both Canada and the United States have joined the program, which seeks to challenge universities to initiate climate action measures and increase climate change related research and education efforts on campuses. As part of the program, universities are encouraged to complete and release GHG emission inventories, to stabilize and reduce their GHG emissions, and to share their experiences with each other and with public officials, NGOs, and citizens. To do these things, universities are encouraged to use a “toolkit” supplied by Clean Air—Cool Planet.
Developments in climate change science and politics also receive growing coverage in major regional newspapers such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe, together with national magazines. The New York Times in particular has devoted much attention to efforts by the Bush administration to play down or alter scientific data on anthropogenic influences on the global climate system. Many of the region’s newspapers closely follow RGGI and other major climate and energy policy developments, as well as political and legal developments associated with the lawsuits filed by state attorneys generals against the federal government for its unwillingness to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Editorials in the region’s newspapers are largely supportive of the various climate change policy developments at regional, state, and local levels.
The Potential and Limits of Regional Action
A network of civil servants has been an important driving force behind climate policy initiatives in the Northeast. These networked “policy entrepreneurs,” as Barry Rabe might call them, frame climate change issues in regional and local terms and exchange scientific, technical and political information in ways that help to shape policy choices of elected officials and develop more progressive climate change policy across the region. These policy efforts are driven by a combination of factors, including an acceptance of the science of human-driven climate change, concerns about regional vulnerabilities to a changing climate, efforts to protect the long-term viability of local economies, and a sense of responsibility to act in the face of lagging federal climate policy.
Policy developed under the auspices of the NEG-ECP Climate Change Action Plan has reduced CO2 emissions and engendered the construction of institutional and human capacities necessary for continued political and social action on climate change. States have also adopted individual climate change action plans and policies, such as regulating CO2 emissions from oil- and coal-fired power plants and adopting renewable portfolio standards. Under RGGI, states are attempting to launch a CO2 emissions trading scheme and attorney generals of several states are collectively suing the federal government over its refusal to regulate CO2. In addition, many cities and towns across the Northeast are developing climate policy and setting goals of reducing GHG emissions at the municipal level. The regional NGO community has greatly intensified its efforts on climate change policymaking and public outreach over the past couple of years.
Because Northeastern states emit GHG emissions at levels similar to many medium-sized European and developing countries, GHG mitigation efforts in these states are important in an international context. Yet the impacts of GHG mitigation action in the Northeast should not be exaggerated. State actions taken to date are not likely to meet short-term GHG emissions reduction targets, which in themselves are modest. In other words, the 2010 and 2020 emissions reduction goals of the NEG-ECP Climate Change Action Plan cannot be met without further efforts to reduce emissions from the two major sources of GHG emissions, transportation and energy. Similarly, while RGGI may prove to be an important institutional precedent, it will not, in itself, achieve the emission reduction goals adopted by participating states.
Addressing emissions from the transportation sector more aggressively poses a major policy challenge for the Northeastern states, as well as the rest of the United States and Canada. Though state officials in the region frequently discuss transportation issues, little policy change so far has been achieved that is likely to substantially impact GHG emissions from transportation. In part, state officials are awaiting the outcome of California’s current efforts to regulate CO2 emissions from vehicles, especially as some Northeastern states are legally mandated to adopt California vehicle emission standards. The adoption of new California standards would be one important step to reduce transportation emissions in the Northeast, but additional measures will likely be required to effectively bring down GHG emissions from this sector.
Although the many CCP members across the Northeast are initiating important policy efforts on climate change mitigation, municipalities are also discovering that reducing GHG emissions can be challenging. For example, Cambridge, Mass., aims to reduce its emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2010, which would represent an annual reduction of almost 500,000 tons of CO2. Yet data released in 2004 showed that Cambridge’s GHG emissions are up 27 percent from 1990 levels. While emissions from the residential sector were down by 25 percent from 1990 levels, commercial and industrial emissions grew by 63 percent from 1990 levels. Transportation emissions also increased by 22 percent between 1990 and 2003.
In addition, there are, of course, opponents to expanding regional climate change policy and action in the Northeast. Some policymakers and analysts oppose the NEG-ECP Climate Change Action Plan and developing state climate policy on principle. For example, U.S. Senator John Sununu (R-N.H.) is a consistent skeptic of the science behind climate change, while researchers at the Maine Public Policy Institute refute data pointing to an increase in human influence over the climate, declaring that higher energy prices would be “death to New England”. Massachusetts and Rhode Island elected not to sign RGGI’s Memorandum of Understanding in part because of political pressure from public and private sector actors opposing the idea of a regional cap-and-trade scheme.
Nevertheless, the regional, state and local initiatives discussed above, and the well-networked climate policy advocates associated with them, are potentially influential well beyond the Northeastern region and/or the direct effect on GHG emissions from the rather modest set of mitigation policies enacted so far. The initiatives outlined above, if perceived as even moderately successful, will be invoked by climate change policy advocates across the continent as evidence that measured climate change policy is possible while maintaining (and possibly even improving) the competitiveness of the local economy. Thus, regional groups of leading states, such as those on the West Coast or around the Great Lakes, may take up similar climate change policy planning and goal setting efforts.
RGGI participants report extensive contact with public officials in other U.S. states and Canadian provinces regarding procedures and substantive elements of RGGI. There are no formal obstacles preventing others from joining RGGI, and additional participants need not be geographically contiguous with current RGGI states. RGGI could also be extended to include GHG emissions sources besides power-generating facilities. Moreover, just as the existing U.S. national SO2 and NOx trading programs were substantially shaped by early action in the Northeast, RGGI may have a significant influence on any future federal CO2-trading scheme, especially if its geographical and regulatory scope were to be expanded. In fact, a central justification for RGGI among regional officials and climate policy advocates is that the program is likely to influence future federal climate change policy developments.
To date, the Eastern Canadian provinces have generally lagged behind the Northeastern U.S. states when it comes to developing and implementing regional and local level climate change policy beyond federal mandates. The provinces have often adopted a wait and see stance with respect to the formulation of a national Canadian climate policy, whereas the states in the Northeast have been more proactive in their desire to take action in what they see as a federal policy vacuum. These many state level initiatives may help to expand markets for energy-efficient products and renewable energy, as well as engender policy learning and diffusion across state actors and borders. Climate policy advocates in the region are also actively trying to generate and diffuse norms that policy and behavior that reduce GHG emissions are “better” than those that engender increases.
Addressing climate change ultimately requires the involvement of the public, private, and civil sectors—both individuals and institutions—working multiple levels of governance from local to global. Climate governance ultimately requires public, private and civil society sector individuals and institutions across various levels of organizations from local to global. In the North American Northeast, state and local officials, NGOs, universities, and firms are actively engaged in public and private debates about effective and efficient ways to respond to the challenges posed by climate change mitigation and adaptation. A growing number of the region’s public and private sector actors are moving ahead on climate change action in the absence of federal policy, but they also call for more serious and effective federal political action and economic support for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Local politicians and officials acknowledge that supplementary federal policy is necessary to substantially expand on the policy momentum that has been building in the region since the late 1990s, and to significantly impact national GHG emissions.
- A list of New England Climate Coalition members
- More on the NEG-ECP climate change program
- More on Cape Wind
- More on RGGI
- More on the U.S. Green Building Council
- The Clean Air-Cool Planet Toolkit
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