While the federal government has retracted environmental progress, including rescinding 74 environmental regulations, state climate change leaders are stepping up in areas where they have significant authority: developing a more robust and efficient clean energy industry, protecting consumers, and setting their own targets.
To date, 17 states and territories representing 28% of all US electric power demand are aiming to generate at least 50% of their electricity through clean energy. Three states have emerged as particularly innovative leaders in building a green future for the United States.
In 2019, the undisputed leader in state climate action passed what the New York Times called “one of the most ambitious climate targets by a legislature anywhere in the world”: the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).
The CLCPA requires New York to hit 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon emissions overall by 2050. The legislation builds on a New York City law increasing energy efficiency standards for buildings and efforts by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to improve the reliability and efficiency of the state’s electricity grid.
As one of the states most engulfed in the climate crisis, California is at the vanguard of state climate action. California’s climate change leadership began in the 1970s, when it adopted fuel efficiency standards that have continued to go beyond the federal government’s.
In 2006, it became the first state to adopt a comprehensive climate law, including a cap-and-trade model for addressing carbon pollution, a low-carbon fuel standard, and investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency across the state economy.
In 2017, it implemented a Buy Clean standard requiring the state government to consider vendor greenhouse gas emissions in its procurement process. Thanks to targeted investments and standards, the state now has 1 million solar roofs and counting. California, which would be the fifth largest economy in the world if it were a sovereign nation, has also formed its own bilateral climate partnerships with other countries.
Rural and rugged Maine’s climate change leaders have focused on plastic pollution. In 2019, the state legislature passed a ban on Styrofoam, and activists are seeking to expand the ban to other forms of plastic to help shift the burden of responsible waste management from consumers to companies.
Maine is one of nine states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which created a cap-and-trade program for emissions that is poised to expand into the carbon-heavy transportation sector. The state is also increasing investments in wind and solar energy—a pending bill would require solar panels on government buildings.
Climate action from state leaders may be more incremental by nature, but it can normalize the climate-friendly changes needed to build support for the transition to a green economy.