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Climbing the Ladder of Ambition to Meet US Climate Targets

It’s Climate Week 2021 and the United States has never been closer to taking the bold steps needed to address the climate crisis. As the devastating impacts of historic temperature extremes, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires continue to intensify, Congress could be on the verge of passing the largest federal climate investment in its history.

Against this domestic backdrop, just six weeks remain until COP26, the most important UN Climate Change Conference since Paris in 2015. At COP26, nations and leaders from around the world will present their updated climate commitments and strategies to meet them. The world is watching to see if the United States will back up its enhanced nationally determined contribution (NDC)—a commitment to reducing emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030—with a comprehensive plan for action.

A new report from America Is All In—a coalition of thousands of nonfederal climate leaders—provides that plan. The Blueprint 2030 report outlines an all-of-society effort to achieve the NDC—one that involves action at every level of society, not just the federal government. In fact, the report shows how federal and nonfederal actors can inspire and build off each other’s efforts to do more, faster.

The approach is akin to climbing a ladder of climate ambition. States, cities, businesses, and civil institutions act as one leg to step up a rung, followed by the federal government stepping up to the next rung, and so on. This symbiotic cycle and coordinated action can set the United States on course to decarbonize at the pace and scale needed to meet emissions reduction targets.


Nonfederal Actors Setting the Level of Ambition

With federal climate legislation often stalling as a result of congressional gridlock, nonfederal actors have been nimble and ambitious, driving change at the local level. Historically this has set a precedent for the federal government to take decisive action. For instance, following the action of 14 states to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration, aerosols, and other applications—the business community advocated for a national standard. Congress complied by passing the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020, which established a national plan for eliminating HFCs and limiting the emissions impact of refrigerants.

Nonfederal actors have continued to step up and lead the way on climate action. Nearly half of all states, almost 500 cities, and over 1,000 businesses and civil institutions have set greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. These US states, cities, businesses, and civil institutions that have committed to climate action aligned with the Paris Agreement represent 71 percent of US GDP, 66 percent of the nation’s population, and 51 percent of US emissions.

Ambitious action from nonfederal actors is proving to be essential to create federal action today. For example, states stepped up one rung on the ladder of climate ambition by adopting aggressive clean energy and renewable portfolio standards that have helped create and expand markets for clean energy. The private sector and local governments, in turn, ramped up procurement of carbon-free electricity, further increasing demand for renewable energy.

Building off the success of these commitments, the federal government is pursuing national policy to decarbonize the whole electric power sector by 2035. Nonfederal leaders set the necessary foundation for ambitious federal climate action, and the federal government is poised to scale parallel policies at the national level.


Federal Action Meeting and Supporting Nonfederal Ambition

Federal climate infrastructure investments like those proposed in the 2021 reconciliation bill are essential for achieving our targets for emissions reductions. States that were previously not taking steps to decarbonize will now take action because the federal investments will have made it cost-effective to do so. The proposed federal funding, in addition to the actions of local governments, businesses, and civil institutions, can set the US on a path for meeting the NDC. However, it’s likely the federal government will need to continue to enact aggressive climate policies, especially for harder-to-abate sectors such as industry and transportation.

The new and enhanced climate policies Congress is currently considering could provide an opportunity for states and local governments to scale up climate action, while ensuring the transition does not negatively impact underserved communities. Low-income households have a higher energy burden on average, meaning that the up-front costs of a clean energy transition could disproportionately fall on the people who can least afford it.

Federal investments can help local governments, utilities, and other businesses mitigate this effect, allowing them to retire and replace fossil fuel infrastructure without increasing the cost of living for low-income communities. A robust federal infrastructure package with significant climate spending and equity requirements provides a cost-effective and just path for local governments, businesses, and institutions to meet their sustainability goals on an accelerated timeline.


Building on Federal Investments

With federal infrastructure spending likely on its way, nonfederal actors should use this once-in-a-decade funding to take climate ambition to a new level. For leading states, cities, and businesses, the new infrastructure legislation and investments can provide them with resources necessary to accelerate and scale up commitments. For climate stragglers, new funding would present a rich new opportunity to leverage federal investment and reap the rewards of the clean energy transition.

Blueprint 2030 shows that nonfederal actors must keep setting a high bar for climate action if the United States is to hit critical targets. One key new target is the phaseout of internal combustion engines for light-duty vehicles by 2035. Already California, Massachusetts, GM, Audi, and Volkswagen have all set targets at least that ambitious. As more nonfederal trendsetters join this group by setting their own goals for phasing out internal combustion engines, they can help reshape the market and drive timely federal action to meet this target.


Harmonizing Actions

To meet the United States’ ambitious climate goals, public and private institutions need to find creative opportunities for partnership. The report highlights examples of this type of collaboration. For instance, a federal R&D loan from the Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office helped Tesla bring the first zero-emissions, full-size electric vehicle to market. Tesla then partnered with Truckee Meadows, a community college in Reno, Nevada, to build a workforce using funding from the State of Nevada to train students for good-paying jobs in the clean energy economy. These types of cross-sectoral partnerships can get more done, faster, underscoring the advantages of an “all-in” approach to climate action.

The report shows how ambitious climate leadership from both federal and nonfederal actors gives the United States the best chance of moving at the pace and scale needed. A strategy in which states, cities, businesses, civil institutions, and the federal government continue to lift one another can create climate progress that is enduring, long-lasting, and resilient to political change. As COP26 approaches, the United States finally has a blueprint to show it’s serious about doing its part to keep temperatures below 1.5°C.