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Climate

24 States Are About to Set Climate Targets for the First Time

A little-known grant program in the Inflation Reduction Act is spurring almost every state to make a climate plan.

America as a clipboard.
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To date, less than half of all states have set forth targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Within two years, almost all of them will have official climate goals. Even Texas, even West Virginia, even Wyoming.

It’s already been a big year for climate action in states where the issue has been a nonstarter politically. The Inflation Reduction Act, the historic climate package that Biden signed last year, has brought billions of dollars in investment and tens of thousands of new jobs in clean energy manufacturing to places like Georgia. But that state’s governor, Brian Kemp, has managed to champion the economic opportunity without mentioning climate change. Now, his administration is gearing up for its first-ever climate plan.

That’s thanks to a program in the IRA that has flown mostly under the radar called the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants. It earmarked $3 million each for all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, to produce a comprehensive climate action plan.

The grants are noncompetitive, and states could access the funding simply by opting in. All but four — South Dakota, Kentucky, Florida, and Iowa — said yes, please.

By taking the money, the states agreed to produce an inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions and a list of actions they might take to reduce them, due to the Environmental Protection Agency by March. This is already a meaningful change — many states don’t regularly track or publish data about where their emissions are coming from. Then, in 2025, recipients will have to follow up with a much more detailed plan that includes projections of future emissions if the plan is followed, an analysis of benefits for disadvantaged communities, and workforce planning needs. Their plans will also have to include greenhouse gas reduction goals in line with the Biden administration’s commitment to reduce emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2030.

For many states, that extra funding could go a long way. While some like California and New York have hundreds of staffers working on emission reduction plans, others may have a dozen or fewer. They haven’t had the capacity to do the data collection, modeling, and community engagement work that emissions inventorying, climate goal-setting, and action planning require. Now, fiscally constrained state environmental agencies will be able to hire extra staff and consultants. That extra support can also help states develop strategies to unlock more federal funding from the dozens of other programs in the IRA.

“A lot of the federal policy conversation is shaped by what happens in states,” Justin Balik, the state program director for the advocacy group Evergreen Action, which fought for this program to be included in the IRA, told me. “And so we saw this opportunity to continue to cement this role that states can play in continuing to drive the ball forward.”

Balik pointed out the funding is especially meaningful in states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, where the governors in office want to be climate champions and have already made substantial climate plans but are hamstrung by conservative legislatures unwilling to fund them.

North Carolina, for example, recently completed a report modeling pathways it could take to achieve Gov. Roy Cooper’s goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030, and reaching net-zero by 2050. Bailey Recktenwald, the climate change policy advisor for the North Carolina governor’s office, told me that the state will use the new grant to do additional analysis of the solutions identified in that report, weighing factors like environmental justice, to determine “which of these recommendations we’ve already put together will get the most bang for our buck.”

Of course, a plan is meaningless without the willpower and funding to act on it, and there’s no requirement for states to fulfill their plans or achieve their goals. A number of states that accepted the planning grants, including Montana and New Hampshire, have made climate action plans in the past, only to let them sit on a shelf. And this could all be moot if a Republican wins in 2024 and shifts priorities at the EPA.

But the EPA’s program dangles a carrot for states to treat the planning process as a starting point — additional funding. Once they’ve submitted their priority plans, states can apply for a second round of grants for implementation. Unlike the planning grants, these are competitive. The EPA has $4.6 billion to hand out in chunks of between $2 million and $500 million for projects that reduce emissions.

That could mean — almost literally — anything. The grants could go toward a one-off project, like replacing a coal plant, or installing carbon capture on a cement plant. They could go toward programs designed to achieve sector-wide goals, like rebates for electric vehicles. Or they could be used for regional partnerships. States in the Northeast, for instance, could go in together on a program to subsidize the beleaguered offshore wind industry. Or they could work together to fund interstate transmission lines that will free up more room for renewables on the grid.

Recktenwald told me one opportunity for North Carolina might be to create incentives to cut emissions from trucks and buses. Cooper had hoped to enact clean truck regulations this year, which a number of other states have adopted, but the legislature prohibited him from doing so. “Now we’re looking for other creative ways to still move that industry and market forward,” Recktenwald said.

The grants’ flexibility leaves room for a range of outcomes — for better and for worse. The think tank RMI is encouraging states and the EPA to consider the timescales required to cut emissions from different sources. “When states are awarded money, it should be based upon how quickly they can move — how relevant a state’s suggested plan of action is to its unique situation,” Drew Veysey, a senior associate at RMI, told me.

It would be more effective for states with a lot of coal plants to use the funding to replace them than to create incentive programs for electric vehicles or heat pumps, for example. When you shut down a coal plant and replace it with clean power, those emissions stop immediately. But if a state starts encouraging the adoption of EVs, it will still have millions of previously sold gas cars driving around for the next 15 years or more. Scientific modeling efforts agree that most, if not all coal plants will have to shut down in the next decade in order to achieve Biden’s 2030 goal.

That may not be on the table in a coal-reliant state like West Virginia or Wyoming; states where climate change is still controversial are already being careful in their public messaging around the program. Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, for one, has stressed that it’s looking at “non-regulatory, innovative, voluntary” approaches for the program. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation created a video about the program that doesn’t once mention climate change. Good luck trying to avoid it forever, though — the program is literally titled “climate pollution reduction grants.”

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Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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