Laboratories of Progress: It's Time to Look Past the Blockage in Washington and Fight for Good Energy Policy at Home

By Marzilli, Jim | The American Prospect, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Laboratories of Progress: It's Time to Look Past the Blockage in Washington and Fight for Good Energy Policy at Home


Marzilli, Jim, The American Prospect


IN THE ABSENCE OF FEDERAL PROGRESS, STATE AND local governments have emerged as key arenas for policies to address global warming. These policies include strategies to encourage the use of cleaner cars, renewable energy, high-performance buildings, and, most importantly, the proposal to cap carbon-dioxide emissions from utilities in the Northeast. State and local programs won't lower emissions to a sustainable level without federal and international action. But they are a start that can also help transform public opinion and awareness.

Local and regional government leaders joined the climate-change debate in the early 1990s with the creation of the Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) Campaign. CCP members use a five-step process: making an inventory of greenhouse-gas emissions, setting reduction targets, and drawing up an action plan, plus implementation and evaluation. The action areas include energy efficiency in public buildings and lighting, transportation planning, solid-waste disposal, vehicle fleet management, and mitigation of urban heat concentration.

It is seemingly easier to implement climate-change programs in liberal Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, but the program thrives in Salt Lake City, too. The 157 participating cities and counties are scattered across 35 states and include both traditional environmental centers and some less obvious locations. The most successful local programs are those with either strong grass-roots constituencies or committed mayors, like Salt Lake City's Rocky Anderson and Richard Daley in Chicago. CCP communities are linked by the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, an international alliance that provides technical assistance.

Municipal officials need to hear a convincing argument before they will spend money to address a global environmental threat. Local climate-change activists succeed by connecting the threat of climate change with the high cost of energy, cash-strapped municipal budgets, the health of the economy, and local quality of life.

There are, of course, limits to this approach. Most elected officials plan for the near future measured in budget cycles. They pick the low-hanging fruit where investments in energy efficiency can be recouped quickly, such as substituting light-emitting diodes for incandescent bulbs in traffic lights. They are slower to make the choices that will return their investments over the long haul, like energy-efficient buildings.

State governments, in contrast to local ones, have a larger array of tools at their disposal, with greater control over utilities, building codes, tax incentives, agriculture, and land use. Twenty-eight states have produced climate-change plans, and there are several major regional programs. And unlike the federal response, the states are acting with some bipartisan collaboration.

The states are developing greenhouse-gas reporting mechanisms that build the foundation for future reduction efforts and help businesses identify areas where they can make savings. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia require that utilities use renewable resources to generate some of their electricity, a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that was left out of the recent federal energy bill. But activists in Colorado put their RPS proposal on the ballot in 2004, after it was rejected four times by the Legislature. The grass-roots effort needed to overcome utility-industry spending drove up the turnout in Colorado, helping elect a new Democratic U.S. senator, and representative, as well as Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers.

The federal Clean Air Act preempts state regulation of automobile fuel efficiency but allows states to set limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. California has long been a leader on this front. With six northeastern states already on board, Washington and Oregon about to join California's approach, and Pennsylvania and Illinois considering the proposal (plus tough new standards in Canada), the auto industry will find it increasingly difficult to maintain two product lines for each vehicle it manufactures. …

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