Donald Trump’s announcement in 2017 of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement created a real shock in the USA, among climate and environmental defenders. In response, 10 states, nearly 300 cities and more than 2,000 business leaders signed the ‘We Are Still In’ declaration. Between them, they claim to represent nearly 160 million Americans. Half the country.
All have committed to decarbonizing their economy with a sustainable development program, without the results being officially taken into account by the UN. The State of New York, for example, adopted a law which plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85% by 2050, compared to 1990, and improve waste management practices. We have seen a whole series of State and cities in the United States pull themselves together and say if the federal government doesn’t want to play the game, well we’re going to do it, explain climatologists. So there was a shock which was mobilizing for the international community and for a good part of the American actors.
When Trump made this decision, we wondered whether it was better to have Trump in the agreement or out of it, and we said to ourselves that it was better for him to get out. Because it was important to send a signal to the rest of the world and in particular to Europe. Europe had to take the lead, we should not only rely on the United States. If Trump had remained in the agreement, he would have done everything to disrupt relations with other countries. We also knew that it would send a signal to the States and that is exactly what it happened.
If the fight for the climate only involved these states, these municipalities and these companies, without the support of the federal government, these initiatives could allow the United States to reduce its carbon emissions by 37% by 2030. A figure which comes from a recent analysis by the group America’s Pledge on climate change. An internal group analysis, responsible for evaluating the progress of these players in terms of reducing greenhouse gases and waste creation.
The federal administration cannot take away from the states the powers that flow from the American Constitution. What makes states and cities able to pursue their own climate and energy policy? And what does it mean that the decisions taken by the president may not have an impact at the local level?
US States, because of the institutional balances in the United States, have significant powers, according to waste management specialists at Dumpster HQ Riverside<>/a. The federal administration will obviously carry out an energy policy, an environmental policy, a climate policy, an industrial policy. But it cannot withdraw from the States the powers which flow from the American Constitution. And in particular in the area of environment, very linked to the question of energy. These states have room for maneuver by, for example, resorting to legal proceedings which can go all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States… And at the political level, we cannot not just say that the Democrats are: ‘long live the environment!’, the Republicans are: ‘down with the environment!’… It’s much more complicated and nuanced than that.
Some environmental rules imposed by the Trump administration have been strongly contested, such as the vehicle fuel efficiency standard. A standard that Barack Obama adopted to reduce CO2 emissions. It required new vehicles to reduce their average fuel consumption by 5% per year, until 2026. Donald Trump canceled this standard by decree, to help American auto workers. It therefore reduced this rate of improvement in energy efficiency to 1.5% per year.
California’s legal battle with the Trump administration
In total, around twenty states including California have taken the Trump administration to court to prevent the cancellation of this standard. The plaintiffs say this decision violates the Clean Air Act and endangers public health.
It must be said that California holds the sad record of the most polluted state in the country. Vehicle density is responsible for more than half of greenhouse gas emissions. Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco are the most affected cities. As a result, California benefits from a special exemption from federal air quality standards.
When the federal government proposed the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, California received a special exemption. And in order to standardize environmental regulations across the country, so that companies could invest in and move from one state to another, there was only one federal standard, at he exception of California which had the right to exceed this standard.
But California was also one of the most important economic players, where the greatest number of cars were sold! And so the other states ended up having a choice. If California could exceed the federal standards, other states could choose to adopt the California standard, instead of the federal standard. This is why California is now adopting standards that improve the energy efficiency of vehicles with a view to reducing CO2 emissions and waste generation.
California Governor Gavin Newsom even hit the nail on the head. From 2035, no new car sold in California can be equipped with a diesel or gasoline engine; only vehicles running on electricity, hydrogen and certain hybrid vehicles can be sold on Californian soil. And today, Gavin Newsom is fighting with the federal government to maintain the energy efficiency standard for Barack Obama’s vehicles in California.
The Trump administration was a hindrance for states and cities trying to implement innovative policies to reduce CO2 emissions. Fortunately, California has very good lawyers. California’s legal challenges are proving very effective…And with the Biden administration, a number of these procedures have simply been withdrawn.
California has played a leading role in environmental matters for many years. The State stands out in particular in two areas: improving air quality and increasing energy efficiency.