As the Kyoto Protocol on climate change takes effect [16 February], the United States is officially on the sidelines. But emerging initiatives in cities, states and regions within America could lead the way to a national policy.
The Bush Administration rejected the treaty in 2001, saying that compliance would hurt the U.S. economy. The United States -- which contributes 25% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions -- also argued it was unfair to exempt from the Kyoto standards major polluters in the developing world, such as India and China. The United States and Australia are the only industrialized countries that failed to ratify the agreement.
Yet 154 U.S. cities have their own plans to fight global warming -- as part of a growing network organized by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. In each locality, the group's Climate Protection Campaign began with a formal resolution.
"Local governments conduct an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions," says the Council's Director of Outreach, Susan Ode. "Then they adopt an emissions reduction target. Then they go ahead and implement the changes and keep track of it, and report so that they can improve and also be accountable to the citizens."
The resolution is a commitment to action. "Typical of all local government pledges, there are a lot of 'whereas' clauses," Ms. Ode says. "So the resolution does refer to the problems and describes it quite specifically."
Here are some of the specifics:
· Reflective rooftops cool city buildings in Tucson, Arizona.
· Snowplows and garbage trucks run on bio-diesel fuel in Keene, New Hampshire.
· In Texas, Austin offers wind energy serves as a power option.
· Electricity is derived from landfill methane gas in Los Angeles.
The Council estimates that these actions -- and hundreds like them -- add up to an annual reduction of 20 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and a savings of $400 million in energy costs.
Director of Outreach Susan Ode says the campaign works because it allows people to take local action in response to a global problem. The key, she says, is that communities are the places "where they drive, where they do their business, where they heat and cool their homes…[and] also where they have the best access to elected leaders who have control."
Judith Greenwald confronts the same issues on the state level as Director of Innovative Solutions for the private Pew Center on Global Climate Change. She says that most U.S. states have implemented climate action plans. "There are about 29 of those," she says, "and they are all over the country. If you look at regional initiatives, the bulk of the country is covered by regional initiatives either on climate change or clean energy."
For example, nine northeastern states have formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is expected to go into force in 2007. The plan would put a cap on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. "What that means is that power plants will be assigned limits that they have to meet," says Ms. Greenwald. "But they can either meet those limits at their own facilities, or they can trade emission credits with other plants around the region. So it is a way to reach environmental goals, at [the] least cost."
Governors in western states have developed a renewable energy scheme that would operate on similar trading principles. And, in the upper Midwest, states have joined together under the banner, "Powering the Plains" - in a plan that involves state lawmakers, the governors' offices and the private sector. "That one is interesting," says Judith Greenwald. "It is a public-private partnership, and the region is figuring out how they can work together to promote renewable energy, bio-fuels, wind power and all of the other kinds of initiatives which both give you clean energy, benefits to the agricultural economy and also help you out on climate change."
Ms Greenwald argues that, at the national level, climate change cannot be separated from the debate over federal policy on everything from agriculture, to energy, to transportation. But she says the issue is less complicated at the state level, making it easier for legislators to enact emission control laws and set up environmental initiatives.
Although these state and local programs are not a substitute for federal action, Judith Greenwald says they can lay the groundwork for the future. "If you actually have some states out there trying it," she says, "you can actually see what people do in response to meeting greenhouse gas constraints and what the benefits and costs are. I think it will be very helpful."
As more U.S. states implement emission control programs, environmental activists will continue to call on the federal government to incorporate those plans into a national policy to address global climate change.