Fighting Climate Change on a Global Stage

RMI and partners are quantifying the still-massive US action on our Paris Agreement commitments

By Paul Bodnar, Koben Calhoun, and Caroline Ott

RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst addresses the crowd at the launch of the America’s Pledge phase 1 report. PHOTO: courtesy Paul Bodnar

On a brisk November Saturday in Bonn, Germany, Rocky Mountain Institute CEO Jules Kortenhorst is preparing to take the stage at the United Nations Climate Conference. He will introduce a lineup of global climate leaders, including the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Fijian prime minister, and several US mayors and governors. He will ultimately turn the microphone to California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to introduce America’s Pledge: an initiative to showcase leadership by US states, cities, and businesses in the fight against climate change.

The UN climate conference — referred to as the Conference of the Parties or the COP — happens every year, but this past year was different. Following President Trump’s announcement of his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, the United States experienced an unprecedented swell of climate commitments by US states, cities, and businesses. Building on that momentum, last year’s COP featured a first-of-its kind US Climate Action Center to showcase these new voices of American climate leadership. Over eight days, the 27,000-square-foot venue hosted 44 events featuring governors, senators, mayors, and business leaders. While it was not an official national pavilion, the US Climate Action Center nonetheless hosted one of the largest side events in COP history: the launch of America’s Pledge.

A deep-dive discussion of the America’s Pledge report, with RMI’s Koben Calhoun (far left) and Paul Bodnar (far right) alongside other contributors. PHOTO: Rhys Gerholdt/World Resources Institute

The America’s Pledge event on November 11, 2017, attracted over 1,000 people. The crowd was excited, hooting and hollering, some shouting and some weeping. The America’s Pledge phase 1 report was officially welcomed by the president of COP23, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, and the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Patricia Espinosa. Former Mayor Bloomberg made America’s voice clear when he said, “If Washington won’t lead, mayors, governors, CEOs, and civil society will.” And Governor Brown brought the crowd to its feet when he declared, “We’re here, we’re in, and we’re not going away.” The world heard us, and folks at home were listening, too. On that day, #WeAreStillIn was one of the top trending topics on Twitter in the United States. The launch of America’s Pledge shifted the mood at COP from one of pessimism about US climate efforts to one of ambition for increasing momentum to reduce GHG emissions, and hope for clear leadership from the United States on climate.

“Weʼre here, weʼre in, and weʼre not going away.”
FIGURE 1: Gross Domestic Product of Largest Countries and of US States and Cities Supporting the Paris Agreement. SOURCE: America’s Pledge phase 1 report.

RMI was privileged to be a part of the team — led by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Brown and including partners World Resources Institute, CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), the University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability, and other leading expert organizations — that contributed to the phase 1 report of America’s Pledge in Bonn. Both the findings of the report and its reception at the COP make us more hopeful than ever that the climate challenge can be overcome and that the United States is still an indispensable part of the solution. On the same theme, RMI also released The Carbon-Free City Handbook at COP23. The handbook is a guide to concrete actions and resources for cities around the world to move toward climate neutrality. Both resources have been referenced by climate leaders across the globe, and both have helped to kick-start a new era of climate leadership by states, cities, businesses, and other nonfederal actors.

FIGURE 2: Networks Supporting the Paris Agreement Across the United States. NOTE: Information represented on the map was based on available data as of October 1, 2017. The coalitions represented are dynamic and the data will change over time. SOURCE: America’s Pledge phase 1 report.

THE ORIGINS OF AMERICA’S PLEDGE

In December 2015 in Paris, 195 nations reached an unprecedented consensus on a long-term global policy framework for climate action. Almost all parties to the Paris Agreement set national goals or targets for curbing their emissions by 2030 or sooner, and the United States pledged to reduce its emissions by 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. These commitments were critical to building political will and designing the agreement in such a way that it could achieve its objectives to limit global warming.

However, in June 2017, President Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement (a process that could only take formal effect in late 2020). Immediately following this announcement, an overwhelming number of American mayors, governors, CEOs, and other leaders spoke out under the banner “We Are Still In” to reaffirm their support for continued action on climate change and for the Paris Agreement itself. In July, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Brown launched America’s Pledge, an analytical effort to quantify and communicate the efforts of various US climate action coalitions and campaigns. Since the launch of America’s Pledge, RMI has been hard at work alongside core partners at the University of Maryland and World Resources Institute.

Why the need for a new effort like America’s Pledge? The Paris Agreement is a treaty among nations, and subnational actors and businesses have traditionally been relegated to the side halls of UN climate meetings. Nations are accustomed to getting information about each other from their capitals. But following Trump’s announcement, there was no ready-made mechanism to reassure the rest of the world that American climate leadership continues to shine bright even when Washington goes dark. By analyzing, quantifying, and showcasing the progress and ambition of US states, cities, and businesses in decarbonizing our economy, America’s Pledge hopes to influence the ambition of other countries as they come back to the negotiating table to ratchet their national targets in 2020 and beyond.

The crowd in the pavilion was excited. PHOTO: Schuyler Null/World Resources Institute

NONFEDERAL ACTORS LEADING ON CLIMATE

Our analysis found that the real economy of the United States and its leaders in business, state and city governments, and universities are driving significant reductions in the nation’s emissions output, and can help drive progress on our pledge under the Paris Agreement. States and cities representing more than half of the US economy have declared their support for the Paris Agreement. If these nonfederal actors were a country, they would be the world’s third largest economy.

In addition, over 1,300 businesses — representing $25 trillion in market capitalization — and over 500 universities have adopted greenhouse gas emissions-reduction targets akin to the Nationally Determined Contributions of Paris Agreement Parties (NDCs). These NDCs are the quantified commitments of all the nations that signed the Paris Agreement. The America’s Pledge phase 1 report gives other nations the confidence to stay committed to their own NDCs because it shows that it’s still possible for America’s pledge on climate action to be fulfilled, and for global contributions to still add up to a meaningful whole.

The report’s findings should also give us confidence here at home in the United States, where the energy revolution is well underway. The commitments and actions quantified by America’s Pledge, combined with falling clean technology prices and emerging market innovations, are driving the low-carbon transformation of the US economy. Between 2005 and 2015, the US economy grew by 15 percent while net greenhouse gas emissions fell by 11.5 percent. And it should come as no surprise. We found that, of the nation’s largest 51 cities, 35 have energy reduction goals, as do 48 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

This transition to a low-carbon future is most pronounced in the power sector, where emissions have declined by 24 percent between 2005 and 2016. We found that corporations in the United States have signed deals to purchase more than 9 gigawatts of renewable energy in the past five years (and 96 percent of such deals involved a member of RMI’s Business Renewables Center), while 43 cities have committed to using 100 percent renewable energy in the near future. Meanwhile, the cost of solar power and battery energy storage (for things like electric vehicles) have both dropped by about 80 percent since 2010 and are still falling. Amory Lovins and RMI have been working toward a revolution in the way we produce and use energy for 35 years, and it is succeeding — and accelerating. But while this progress is encouraging, the decarbonization of the United States needs to bend down the emissions curve faster to hold within reach America’s pledge to reduce its overall emissions by 26–28 percent by 2025 compared with 2005 levels — particularly in the face of federal inaction.

Launching the America’s Pledge report are (l to r) Paul Bodnar, Koben Calhoun, Caroline Ott, Kristin Igusky (of World Resources Institute), and Michael Bloomberg. PHOTO: courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies

RMI’S ROLE IN AMERICA’S PLEDGE

RMI has been helping states, cities, universities, corporations, and industry reduce their greenhouse gas emissions for decades, and not because the federal government told anyone to do so. Through our Reinventing Fire analysis, we showed that a pathway to a clean and low-carbon future is not only possible, it’s also profitable. For these and many other reasons, we strongly believe that Trump’s intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement does not mean that the United States will halt progress on addressing the impacts of climate change. We believe that success in this vital effort depends on individuals and markets,not on policymakers and governments alone. That’s why we’re working harder — and with higher spirits — than ever.

“We believe that success in this vital effort depends on individuals and markets, not on policymakers and governments alone.”

In the partnership, RMI led on analytical efforts and products, while also advising on communications and stakeholder coordination. In the month following the launch of America’s Pledge, RMI and World Resources Institute, in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the office of Governor Brown of California, convened 50 experts in San Francisco to discuss analytic issues related to climate action by US subnational actors. RMI led several discussions and breakout sessions on the design of the America’s Pledge phase 1 report, and also facilitated discussion on how this work relates to other coalitions and analyses.

During the following autumn, RMI co-led the heavy work of analysis of the real economy, leading to the publication of the phase 1 report at COP23. In this role, RMI took the lead on analytics and drafting — including visuals — while also managing and coordinating inputs from expert reviewers. RMI staff presented the findings of the phase I report at multiple panels and events at COP23, including the US Climate Action Center flagship event moderated by RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst, and a “deep dive” event featuring the authors of the report.

THE WORK CONTINUES

Building on the analysis outlined in the first report, the America’s Pledge initiative is developing a more comprehensive analysis of the bottom-up contributions of real-economy actors to carbon emissions reductions, with an eye toward to the 2025 end date of the first US commitment under the Paris Agreement. This analysis will quantify how the commitments and actions of real-economy actors, in conjunction with market forces and remaining federal policies, will continue to shape the trajectory of US greenhouse gas emissions. This phase 2 analysis will be delivered later this year at the California Global Climate Action Summit. In addition to capturing additional data on commitments and actions of states, cities, and businesses, the phase 2 report will also present roadmaps for more ambitious action in key sectors of the US economy. The report will also feature a robust analysis of the current US greenhouse gas-emissions trajectory, and the potential for real-economy actors to continue to lead on lowering that trajectory in line with the contribution the United States pledged as part of the Paris Agreement.

“Seeing those efforts brought together is what reveals the strength of our combined action, and shows us that we are effecting the energy revolution together.”

In the meantime, America’s Pledge is influencing global and national climate conversations and actions. At the inaugural North American Climate Summit in Chicago, one month after COP23, former President Barack Obama recognized the monumental and critical work that US cities, states, businesses, and citizens are doing to continue movement on climate change. In his keynote remarks to the more than 50 mayors in attendance, Obama said: “The work is up to each of us — wherever we have some impact, wherever we have some influence. That’s why America’s Pledge on Climate is so important — it’s about more than living up to our responsibilities on the world stage, it’s about keeping our word on the world stage. And cities, states, businesses, universities, and nonprofits have emerged as the new face of American leadership on climate change.”

A few days later, at the One Planet Summit outside Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron, too, endorsed America’s Pledge, saying: “We are here today because a lot of us decided not to accept the decision of the American federal government to leave the Paris Agreement. And we say, America’s Pledge, thank you for starting this initiative.…the states, the cities, the businesses, who said, ‘we’re going to take another path.’ It is wonderful.”

Seeing most of the US economy reaffirm its commitment to the strong climate action set in motion by the Paris Agreement is wonderful. Knowing that our nation is still hard at work to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize our economy is a comfort, and it is important, too, so that the world can keep the faith with other efforts and hold us accountable for ours. That’s why we’re proud to be part of the America’s Pledge effort, grateful for the opportunity presented by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Brown to dive deeper in our understanding of US decarbonization, and excited to help communicate those efforts to the world. Working in isolation, it can feel as though every corporate board, every city council, and every state legislature is tilting at windmills. Seeing those efforts brought together is what reveals the strength of our combined action, and shows us that we are effecting the energy revolution together. Which is the only way it can be done.