Another piece of conventional wisdom? That the downturn in the economy and the rise in cheap, domestic natural gas are the driving forces behind the lowered carbon emissions and its equivalents we’ve witnessed and will continue to see in the future. In other words, progress is an accident. But the conventional wisdom is not even half right.
Our analysis reveals that nearly half of the recent and expected future gains we can measure in lowered carbon pollution levels come from practical improvements at the state, local and national levels. Together with citizens and businesses, government programs and policies are developing more diverse and affordable supplies of energy, enabling better and more efficient energy use, creating more efficient transportation and land use, and reducing waste and harmful pollutants.
The collective scale of these kinds of actions must be appreciated. We found that by 2020, United States carbon pollution and its equivalents will have fallen 23 percent, compared to the projection made for that time period, just a few years ago. That reduction would move us a whopping 69 percent closer to the national goal President Obama promised in Copenhagen.
Local, state and federal actions will account for the biggest share of those cuts in carbon pollution — 46 percent. From solid waste recycling in Florida and Maryland’s electricity demand reduction program, to mandating LEED buildings in government buildings in New Mexico, these changes are making a real difference. They do not include a comprehensive, system-wide price on carbon that some climate campaigners see as the most effective way to avert the worst of climate change’s impacts. But these policies are powerful, productive and practical.
Our state-of-the-art research utilized statistical and policy impact analysis to conduct a decomposition analysis of the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook projections for national carbon dioxide emissions.
The study found that eight types of policies currently in place in each of our economic sectors will have a sizable impact on national emissions, as well as 20 new options that, for each, could obtain even further reductions and expand our national energy and economic security. Commonsense initiatives, such as designing buildings to consume less energy or helping commuters cut transportation costs and save energy through mass transit are examples that are both widely supported and easily implemented.
Together, these kinds of policies position us to compete for new markets, expand investment and avoid future conflicts. Climate change makes extreme weather more intense and frequent and could destabilize food systems worldwide. Uncontrolled, the use of fossil fuels, a primary driver of climate change, can also intensify respiratory diseases and lower the quality of our air and water. The specific, proactive steps being taken at the local, state and national levels are and will continue to make our lives safer andhealthier.
There is more where this comes from, and it’s a good thing, because now more than ever, the United States needs to become stronger and more resilient, and our economy needs to get on a sustainable track.
It’s no secret where more work is needed. But together, we can make that happen.

New actions are needed in each of our economic sectors that build on the past, make sense, and work well where they are applied. Local,state and national leaders each need to do their part and work together. Government cannot act alone and must work closely with stakeholders, investors and the public to get it right.
And we need to remove any doubt, once and for all, that America has already made great strides on climate. We have done it; and we can continue to do it. The numbers are real.
This celebration of local success should not delay the push for systemic action. Clearly we need to do more to make our economy, energy and environmental systems more secure for a host of reasons. The reality is that specific, sector-based policies and larger national policies both play a part.
Even as we must come together in Washington and beyond to truly confront the challenge of climate change, the experience and expertise gained from sector-specific actions make clear that we can make important, effective and sizable gains through actions in our own back yards.
Peterson is the founder of the Center for Climate Strategies, a nonpartisan organization that helps governments and stakeholders on issues of energy, economic and environmental security. He represented the White House and U.S. Senate in climate treaty negotiations, and was senior advisor to the White House Climate Change Task Force. He is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies as well as its Climate and Energy Center.