Even a Recession Can’t Stop the Energy Transition

But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Happening Fast Enough

2020 has been quite the year:

  • Virginia became the first southern state to commit to 100 percent zero-carbon electricity.
  • Houston, Dallas, and Kansas City announced carbon-neutrality goals.
  • Several utilities announced plans to go coal-free.
  • Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia committed to 100 percent zero-emissions medium- and heavy-duty vehicles by midcentury.
  • Electrify America completed the first cross-country electric vehicle charging route.
  • The largest oil and gas producing state in the East (Pennsylvania) and the first state in the Permian Basin (New Mexico) advanced rules to reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry.
  • Colorado and Virginia enacted policies to phase out super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which—combined with industry action—has been followed by bipartisan US Senate support for federal HFC legislation.

Across the country, states, cities, businesses, and other local leaders have continued to drive ahead toward a fully decarbonized economy—this despite the immense challenges posed by a global pandemic and economic recession.


Progress Has Continued Despite the Events of 2020

Devastating as it has been—and it has been devastating—COVID-19 has not shaken the climate commitment of US states, cities, businesses, and other non-federal leaders.

The latest America’s Pledge analysis—led by Rocky Mountain Institute, University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability, and World Resources Institute, and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies—looked at recent trends across five key sectors of the economy. The analysis shows that 2020 trends modestly increase confidence in the ability of state and local leaders to deliver on the ambitious emissions reductions modeled in last year’s Accelerating America’s Pledge.

This is remarkable and worth restating. We are more confident today than we were a year ago that bottom-up leaders can drive significant emissions reductions.

Even when facing public health and economic crises, local leaders and industry have not fallen back on the old way of doing things. Instead, they have continued to push forward toward a clean energy economy. Moreover, coal-powered electricity generation took the brunt of the hit of reduced electricity demand. Renewable energy investments and deployment plowed ahead. Automakers continued to transition to an electric future. And recent price shocks and reduced long-term demand expectations are putting pressure on the oil and gas industry. This is evidence that—thanks to bottom-up leadership, strong market fundamentals for clean energy, and increasingly supportive public opinion in favor of clean energy—we have passed a tipping point in the clean energy transition. Clean energy is here to stay.


2020 Progress Is the Continuation of Three-Plus Years of Dramatic Action

The continued progress despite the challenges of 2020 is the exclamation point on an exciting and bold statement from the US non-federal climate community since the June 2017 launch of We Are Still In and America’s Pledge. Over the last three years, US states, cities, businesses, tribes, counties, universities, healthcare institutions, faith-based groups, cultural institutions, regional associations, investors, citizen groups, and more have carried the torch on climate action. Their efforts are keeping the United States on a path of climate progress despite a disengaged and even adversarial federal administration.

In three short years, the number of EVs on the road has doubled, 16 states have committed to phase down HFCs, the number of cities committed to 100 percent renewable electricity has quintupled, and seven states and 27 gas companies have committed to methane leak reduction.

Today, one-third of all Americans live in a jurisdiction committed to 100 percent clean electricity, six million people live in cities committed to all-electric new building construction, and two-thirds of Americans support a 100 percent clean economy by 2050, a carbon tax, and stronger fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

The world today is different than it was three years ago, thanks to the unprecedented leadership of states, cities, businesses, and others.


And Yet, Much More Is Needed

All that said, if we are going to limit global warming to 1.5°C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must do much, much more. First and foremost, the US federal government must re-engage in the climate fight and actively partner with state and local leaders on a comprehensive, all-in climate strategy.

Climate change is an all-hands-on-deck problem. In the age of the Paris Agreement, climate change was considered primarily a national government issue. In the last four years, climate change has become a state and local issue here in the United States. But both are needed. Only with expanded and ambitious action from both federal and non-federal leaders—working together to complement each other—do we stand a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

To start, pandemic economic recovery and stimulus packages provide a critical opportunity to supercharge the energy transition. Importantly, economic support for state and local governments—with budgets that have been hit hard by the pandemic—will likely be key to enable the pace of change needed in the years ahead. Without an infusion of federal funding, state and local climate progress is likely to slow.

Stimulus and recovery can go further by targeting support for key aspects of the clean energy economy. Investments in public transit are particularly critical for equity and to avoid recent threats to emissions reductions. Other key areas for investment include grid modernization, transportation electrification, clean-up of idle and abandoned oil and gas infrastructure, zero-emissions buildings, end-of-life refrigerant disposal, just transition support, and investment in low-income and vulnerable communities.

Working together, the federal government and states, cities, and businesses can put the country on a path to net-zero emissions while strengthening the economy, creating jobs, improving public health, reducing air and water pollution, and promoting equity.


Collaboration is Key

Over the past three years, states, cities, businesses, and others have taken bold action to advance climate progress—keeping hope alive for US emissions reductions. Remarkably, even a global pandemic and economic recession haven’t derailed bottom-up climate progress. But, if we are to adequately tackle the climate crisis, we must collaborate radically at all levels of government and society—locally, nationally, and internationally; in boardrooms, courtrooms, and dorm rooms; across buildings, transportation, and industry; and with individuals, businesses, advocates, and governments.

We must all be in to address the climate crisis. And we must all be in together.

Download Delivering on America’s Pledge: Achieving Climate Progress in 2020

Download We Are Still In to Deliver America’s Pledge: A Retrospective