Despite the brief respite from emissions caused by COVID-19 lockdowns, it hasn’t been clear whether the pandemic will actually set the world on course to a more climate-friendly future. There’s the issue of disposable personal protective equipment polluting the oceans, the rise in single-use plastics amid coronavirus fears, and the concern that car traffic will increase as people avoid public transit. More broadly, there’s the risk that policy leaders will double down on fossil fuels as part of our economic recovery, rather than divest from them.
Fortunately, the pandemic and economic downturn haven’t obstructed climate action so far, at least at the nonfederal level. That’s according to a new analysis from America’s Pledge, an initiative launched by Michael Bloomberg and then-California Governor Jerry Brown in 2017, sparked by the Trump Administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. America’s Pledge focuses on quantifying the climate actions of states, cities, and businesses in the absence of federal support, and has shown that even without federal backing, those forces can help the U.S. hit the Paris climate goals.
That holds true in the current crisis, per the latest report out on September 14. Ambitious and expanded climate action by U.S. states, cities, and businesses can reduce emissions up to 37% by 2030, the analysis found. Already we’ve seen nonfederal climate progress this year, like Washington state’s move to adopt a zero-emissions vehicle program in March; Lyft’s commitment to 100% electric vehicles on its platform by 2030, announced in June; and New Mexico’s July approval of 100% renewables and storage to replace its retiring coal capacity.
America’s Pledge identifies five sectors with the greatest 2030 emission-reduction opportunities: electricity, transportation, buildings, methane, and HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons, greenhouse gases used in air-conditioning, refrigerants, and aerosols). Some of these sectors have made more progress than others. Electricity has seen a lot of climate wins, such as coal generation dropping and strong renewable energy investments. “While the pandemic and economic downturn have slowed some renewables projects and clean energy legislation,” the report says, “state clean electricity targets and voluntary clean energy purchases by cities and businesses are likely to continue to drive additions over the next decade.”
Transportation is a bit more complicated, because public transit agencies are facing a projected $40 billion budget shortfall, worsened by the pandemic’s impact on city budgets. That’s where support from federal stimulus packages would be helpful. When it comes to reducing HFCs, state action is expanding—16 states have passed or proposed HFC policies, the analysis found—but at the same time, there have been federal regulatory rollbacks. Still, those state and business-level HFC actions could actually outweigh the negative impact of such rollbacks, according to the analysis.
The biggest takeaway from the America’s Pledge report is that such bottom-up action is what’s maintaining our climate progress. The initiative is confident that, even in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, public opinion and market forces will continue to veer in favor of the climate. We’re seeing it already: In the middle of the pandemic, Houston and Dallas have committed to 100% clean electricity, and though there hasn’t yet been much federal commitment to a clean-energy-focused COVID recovery, public opinion polls show that two-thirds of Americans support increased federal climate action—an “unprecedented insistence,” per America’s Pledge. “The signs are clear,” the report reads, “there are powerful and resilient winds of change sweeping [across] America’s energy landscape.”
This bottom-up climate action from U.S. entities is helping us reach our climate goals. But they could be achieved faster if there are federal stimulus programs to support them, the report adds. COVID-19 stimulus and recovery plans are a chance to drive necessary climate action on everything from grid modernization to zero-emissions buildings. With investments in low-income and impacted communities, the analysis says, we can strengthen the economy and create jobs while addressing climate change.