States — Battlegrounds for our Future

By Julian McCall

State governments are the under-the-radar battleground for our future. Tackling climate change is impossible without their leadership. Decades of lagging efforts from the federal government shifted the mandate for protecting our futures to states, some of which have enthusiastically accepted the charge. Since 2000, nearly half of all nationwide renewable electricity generation and capacity growth resulted from Renewable Portfolio Standards, or clean energy requirements, set by states. 

State’s ability to influence industries and markets with incentives and regulations enables them to shape the future. Whether they use this influence to chain us to a polluting economy or free us from fossil fuel dependency is determined by who controls the levers of power. 

Here are some of the ways states can exert their influence: 

Transportation 

Over the past century, America developed an automobile addiction that transformed how we live and organize our cities. The movement of people and goods forms the backbone of our society, consequently leading to great investments of time, energy, and money into providing and maintaining transportation infrastructure. However, this love affair has consequences as the transportation sector is responsible for the most CO2 emissions in the nation. 

The transportation sector is responsible for 27% of national emissions, of which nearly 80% comes from cars and trucks. States are the driving force in shaping the size and structure of transportation projects, and for decades they prioritized cars, pouring resources into asphalt for roads and highways. Today, however, our climate crisis doesn’t allow us to continue building our world around gas-guzzling cars absentmindedly. The choice of deepening our investment in car infrastructure or pursuing alternative modes of transportation is up to state governments. Combating climate change requires us to find new ways to move people and goods, such as:

  • Investing in public transportation: 
    • Improving and expanding America’s notoriously lackluster public transportation is an excellent pro-climate action to take because it limits the number of vehicles on the road, which reduces congestion and the emissions associated with idling cars, per passenger CO2 emissions, and encourages denser development policies. 
  • Clean car standards 
    • The Low-Emission and Zero Emission Vehicle programs that make up the Advanced Clean Car Standards reduce carbon emissions and pollution by cleaning up the gas powered cars on the road while providing more electric vehicles to the market. Not only do these standards significantly cut pollution and emissions from the country’s largest emitting sector, but they have also saved Americans more than $86 billion at the pump.”

Electricity 

Affordable, safe, and reliable emissions-free energy is a vital building block toward constructing a sustainable world. Clean electricity  increases the effectiveness of clean car standards is by ensuring access to clean energy — and provides far more benefits than just making Teslas better for the environment. Clean electricity can power buildings, industry and transportation without carbon emissions. 

Electricity generation is responsible for 25% of national emissions, with gas and coal generating 60% of our electricity. Cleaning this sector is essential for mitigating CO2 emissions and promoting public health. The effects of pollution on the health of local communities from dirty power plants are well documented, and protecting their health is well within states’ abilities. Some policies significantly contribute to increasing the amount of renewable energy in the energy mix, such as:

  • Renewable Portfolio Standards 
    • A renewable portfolio standard (RPS) is a state policy that requires energy providers to use a certain percentage or amount of renewable energy to generate electricity. These standards have been adopted by dozens of states and U.S. territories and are responsible for half of the growth in renewable electricity generation. 
  • Increase energy efficiency in appliances and buildings
    • States can also enact commercial and residential standards that mandate increased energy efficiency, decreasing electricity demand. 

Environmental Justice 

Promoting renewable energy is one part of promoting environmental justice. For far too long, the marginalized have borne the brunt of the ecological and health costs of powering our world. Creating a world where one’s ZIP code of birth is not a determining factor in their life prospects must be part of the vision for a sustainable system. 

States can significantly alter the conditions in which marginalized communities live and remedy historical injustices through actions such as:  

  • Hiring environmental justice staff
    • Promoting environmental justice requires intentionality, as historical injustices can create a system in which continuing environmental justice is the default. Hiring state employees who explicitly have environmental justice in their job description is an invaluable step towards realizing it.
  • Policies that link environmental justice with clean energy investment requirements 
    • One way states can ensure that private capital is investing in environmental justice is by connecting it to investments in renewable energy. Private corporations and individuals seeking to promote clean energy might not always recognize the connection to environmental justice, and state policies can make that link explicit.