Wednesday, September 16, 2015

All Politics is Local 2.0

While last fall's historic climate summit between Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping has been justly celebrated as a milestone for the climate movement, something arguably more interesting happened in Los Angeles earlier this week. Representatives of several dozen municipal and state governments from each country met to discuss specific cooperative programs and technology exchanges, with an important goal: to implement last fall's broad bilateral agreements, but also to accelerate and deepen commitments made by their national governments. Given the sclerotic impediments of the Chinese system, and the obstructionist tendencies of the legislative branch of our own federal government, these local initiatives may prove to be the most effective mechanism by far to bring the world's two largest national producers of greenhouse gas into alignment with the urgent goals of the Paris conference.

What will these city-to-city partnerships look like? You can read the lengthy list of projects here. Among the more impressive instances are pledges by Beijing and Guangzhou to reach peak levels of carbon emission by 2020, rather than the target of 2030 set by the national government. Overall, the group of Chinese cities declaring accelerated rates of energy conversion represent 25% of China's total urban carbon emission--a significant amount by any measure.

On the American side, California, both the state and a large number of its cities, are taking the lead with a state-wide goal of 80-90% carbon reduction by 2050. Seattle, meanwhile, has pledged to become carbon neutral--no new emissions--by 2050. Among the dozen or so American cities at the summit was Boston--a fact that hasn't yt come to the attention of local media.

Beyond the setting of ambitious goals, the conference put into place collaborative systems, drawing on advances in both countries, to help municipalities achieve these goals. One such joint effort is the California-China Urban Climate Collaborative, an initiative to share planning and policy ideas between the two countries as well as building connections between clean technology companies. Another is the agreement between Shenzhen, Guangdong, and Los Angeles to share best practices in green construction and ship pollution containment. China also brings to the table advances in smart grid design and low-emission transportation, among other successes.

Will all these arrangements work? Part of me is suspicious of grand announcements and bureaucratic fixes, but the fact is, much of what needs to happen with decarbonization needs to happen locally. California has proven the truth of this with its notable successes under two administrations, and cities like Portland OR and Seattle have leaped ahead of national targets. Maybe most significant is the high level of participation by major Chinese cities. The world has to believe that the US and China are serious about climate policy if any global progress is to be made in Paris--and if we have a prayer of containing emissions levels at a livable level. Yesterday's summary announcement in Los Angeles may come to be seen as a historic breakthrough in the nick of time.

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