POV: Local Climate Action Matters Now More than Ever
While world leaders dither on combating climate change at COP27, steps by states and cities show ways to win the fight closer to home
The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27, underway in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is a time to reflect on progress since the first international climate change agreement was signed in 1992. While some amazing progress has been made on the clean energy front, global CO2 emissions are 35 percent higher than they were in 1992. The increase in emissions has simultaneously occurred with extreme droughts, heat waves, and other evidence that climate change is already dimming the prospects for humanity, especially for poor and other marginalized populations. Why has progress been so slow?
A key reason: international climate negotiations have left it up to countries to go it alone with voluntary commitments. Good luck with that approach.
One lesson from climate policy and climate action to date is that most top-down approaches on the national and international scale have been insufficient at steering humanity away from potential climate calamity. The good news is that tremendous progress is being made at the state and local levels, and those actions can reverberate across the globe by setting an example and reducing planetary emissions.
In the United States, political paralysis has prevented the federal government from acting at the scale it needs to. A notable exception is the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 that provides $369 billion over the next 10 years toward decarbonization and other energy and environmental goals. Policy instruments such as a national carbon tax—long the (pipe) dream of economists—will never fly in the United States on any relevant time scale.
By contrast, as of this year, 35 of the 50 most populous cities in the United States had some form of a climate action plan. And 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, have adopted climate action plans that have specific greenhouse gas reduction targets. The District of Columbia and 31 states have renewable portfolio standards (RPS) or clean energy standards (CES). An RPS is a regulatory mandate to increase the use of renewable energy sources, while a CES is a regulatory mandate that a certain percentage of electricity sales come from non- or low-emitting sources. These policies are steadily decarbonizing electricity by forcing the adoption of wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and other clean energy sources.
Many people feel disempowered by the enormity of the climate challenge. But action by states and cities brings the issue closer to home and provides an opportunity to engage and be heard—and to see local results, such as access to clean electricity purchases, rooftop solar, bike lanes, and green spaces that buffer storm surges and reduce heat stress.
In Boston, former Mayor Martin J. Walsh committed the city to reach carbon neutrality (net-zero emissions) by 2050. Is the city on track? In 2019, overall emissions were about 21 percent lower than they were in 2005. The city has reduced emissions from its own operations by a third since 2005, and a shift away from heating oil to natural gas and improved building energy efficiency have also reduced emissions. But there is enormous room for progress. The single largest driver of decarbonization lies outside the city: the regional electricity grid has reduced its carbon intensity by 69 percent from 2005 to 2019.
The city is frank about the challenge of meeting its ambitious targets in its 2021 Climate Action Report: “Boston is at risk of not meeting our 2020 carbon target of reducing carbon emissions by 25% from 2005 levels, or our long-term goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.”
A recent report from the Boston Foundation identifies four big lifts to get the city on track to meet its climate goals: the electrification of small buildings, local energy planning, building a resilient coastline, and neighborhood climate justice.
City and state action can drive change at the national and international levels. But the Boston experience highlights the challenge of decarbonization and climate resiliency even in a city widely viewed as a leader in the space. People who are concerned about climate change, but are not sure what to do about it, should consider local engagement to increase access to electric vehicles, build more affordable and energy-efficient housing, and advocate for a public transit system that is up to the challenge. The cumulative effects of small-scale actions matter and are an important partial remedy to weakness on the national and global stages.
Cutler J. Cleveland is the associate director of the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability and a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment. He conducts research and teaching focused on the connection among energy, climate change, and sustainability, and recently was the principal investigator for Carbon Free Boston, a technical assessment of strategies to assist the city of Boston in reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.