Energy Policy

In the Absence of Federal Legislation - Climate Policy at Smaller Scales


As we've discussed earlier, climate policy is energy policy - and often actions we can implement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are cost-saving and carry additional ancillary benefits. It's no surprise, then, that in the absence of a federal climate policy, smaller scale bodies of government are working hard to address these challenges in their own regions, states, and localities.

We find ourselves at a tumultuous point in US climate policy history. Retreating from the commitments of the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreements and renewed investment in the fossil fuel industry puts us at odds with what the scientific community understands about climate change and the actions we must take to address it. As you can imagine, in the years (decades, really) prior to 2015, the very noticeable absence of federal leadership on this problem created a void smaller geographic scales just couldn't ignore. The next several pages of this lesson will take you through the climate policy efforts which emerged at a variety of sub-national geographic scales and introduce you to new ones growing out of the stalled progress we've seen in the past several years with federal climate policy until the Biden Administration took over. Now, these efforts are to a large extent supported by federal initiatives, and so it will be interesting to see what kind of progress can be made while the IRA and IIJA rubber starts hitting the road. As the Rhodium Group notes, the IRA should "provide a decade of policy certainty" supporting emissions reductions and a change in the energy industry, which has never happened before.

As you read through these pages, think about the advantages and disadvantages to tackling these problems at different geographic scales (geography matters!). Greenhouse gas emissions are a unique environmental problem, in that, while emissions are localized and certainly the impacts of climate change are localized, the problem is global. Think about this - most GHG emissions come from the industrialized and rapidly developing parts of the world, the US, China, India. But that doesn't mean these are the countries most adversely affected by a changing climate (take a look at which places are most vulnerable). Rather, some of the most disproportionately affected countries are unindustrialized, low-lying island nations and coastal regions. So, emissions reductions in a given area don't always correlate to reducing that same location's vulnerability to climate change. Quite frankly, our comfortable western lifestyles run up a carbon tab that folks in Bangladesh or Vanuatu (or any other number of places) must pay.

Addressing climate and energy challenges at smaller scales of government offer a degree of flexibility in the strategies implemented to solve the problems which are best suited to a particular place in a way that a blanket federal approach would fail to accommodate. It affords policy makers the opportunity to explicitly tailor plans to the economic, social, and environmental factors and incorporate these place-based nuances into their decision-making process. However, the piece by piece approach also leaves room for inconsistency, and for leakage of emissions from more stringently regulated states to those which are more lax, and may fail to spur innovation across all states. This was really what was so innovative (and smart) about the Clean Power Plan's design; it was structured to strategically have the best of both worlds - a federal program with national targets which allows states to choose their own pathways to meeting reduction goals.

As you go through the various sub-national scales of climate action, think about where you live and what action, if any, your region, state, or municipality has taken. Do you live in an active region? Or, is there a lot of work to do? Maybe that's work you will want to do when you graduate!