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The limits of local fights against climate change

California governor Jerry Brown signs a bill into law with LA skyline behind him
California Governor Jerry Brown signing SB 350, the climate and clean energy legislation bill. Photo: Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

A major climate storyline in the Trump era has been the way that cities, regional governments and companies worldwide have been pressing ahead with low-carbon efforts.

Driving the news: Two U.S. developments this week illustrate the trend: California is on the cusp of enacting legislation to ensure all of the state's electricity comes from carbon-free sources by 2045, while Facebook announced a carbon emissions-cutting target and new renewable energy goals.

Yes, but: A new report provides a glass half-full (or maybe empty) global perspective on that trend.

  • It concludes that local and regional governments, as well as corporations, can play a major role in cutting carbon emissions enough to prevent runaway global warming — but working together is crucial to making that happen.

Why it matters: It's the most comprehensive global analysis yet of these efforts. A Yale University interdisciplinary project called Data Driven Yale released the report along with the NewClimate Institute and a Dutch national institute called the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

What they found: The existing individual pledges would lead to emissions in 2030 that are about 3%–4% below where they would be under current national policies alone.

  • But far steeper reductions are possible if they work in concert via the many "international cooperative initiatives" (ICIs) that bring together some combination of countries, cities, state and regional governments, and businesses and civil society groups. These groups typically come together around more ambitious and long-term goals than individual members.
  • Working through those ICIs could lead to emissions in 2030 that are one third lower than what's on tap under current national policies alone.
  • The impact would be even greater if countries actually meet their Paris agreement pledges (called "nationally determined contributions").
  • "Combined, ICIs and fully-implemented NDCs would bring global emissions in 2030 into a range that is consistent with the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement," the report states.

The big picture: The effect of sub-national and corporate efforts is important at a time when...

  • The White House is scuttling Obama-era national policies and moving to abandon the Paris agreement.
  • Combined national pledges under Paris won't come close to stopping long-term temperatures from rising far above 1.5–2 degrees Celsius, the goal of the 2015 deal.
  • Countries' national policies are collectively not even on track to meet those existing Paris commitments.

Our thought bubble: Put all that together, and it's clear that the burst of regional government and corporate actions are important, but insufficient. A lot of things have to break the right way to prevent blowing far past the Paris goals, and that's a very tall order.