Alexa Kleysteuber is Deputy Secretary for Border and Intergovernmental Relations at the California Environmental Protection Agency where she works to facilitate climate cooperation among states and even with other countries. Alexa’s wide-ranging perspective crosses state and national boundaries. She previously worked as a project manager for the United Nations Development Program where she coordinated regional policy dialogues and as Climate Change Policy Advisor for the government of Chile. She holds an Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and a BA from UNC at Chapel Hill. Only 34 years old, Alexa will be making a big impact on environmental policy for a long time to come. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman caught up with her recently via Skype…
EarthTalk: California has long been a leader in environmental standards, for instance, in solar power and in emissions standards for cars. With Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, what role can California play to help compensate for the vacuum in U.S. leadership?
Alexa Kleysteuber: I think California can play a number of roles, in particular now that the President has decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
I think we play the role of leader. As you mentioned, we’ve been a leader on a number of specific, ambitious policies over the years. We play the role of frontrunner in that sense.
I think we’re also a test case, if you will, for a number of those different policies.
We are also hopefully a catalyst, now that other states and other regions, other cities and jurisdictions can see that our policies do work, and that they not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but actually help grow the economy.
I think California can be a convener. As the sixth largest economy, we definitely have a say in bringing others together. And you’ve seen that recently through the new U.S. Climate Alliance that the Governor has launched after Paris.
I think on the international stage, we play the role of providing assurance, and really keeping that momentum with the international community after the Paris Agreement was adopted and ratified. There will be many obviously looking at the gap in the U.S. at the federal level, and feeling worried that maybe they shouldn’t go on with their ambition, or that they can do less now that the U.S. has stepped back on the federal level. But, in fact, you haven’t seen that. You’ve seen large emitters, like China in particular, really stepping to the table, and India as well, saying that they will continue with their nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement.
I think that California plays a large part in really providing that assurance, that even if the federal government is stepping back, there is still a lot of ambition and action in the United States, led by California and others, that can really keep this momentum going throughout these next four years.
E: So is it fair to say basically you’re doing more of the same, only better? Or is there something new or qualitatively different about the way you’re going to be acting now that we’re out of the Paris Agreement nationally?
Kleysteuber: I think in terms of the ambition of our policies, that remains the same. We’ve always had very high ambition. We have one of the highest targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the country, and in fact in the world. We have a legally-binding target of reaching 40% below our 1990 levels by 2030. That’s in line with a science-based target to set us on the path to not surpassing 2 degrees Celsius.
So, we’ll continue with that overall target. We’ll continue with our 50% renewable electricity goal by 2030, 50% reduction in petroleum use and vehicles, doubling energy efficiency of existing buildings, and our mandate of getting 1.5 million zero emission vehicles on the road by 2025. I think, you know, all of those quantitative targets remain the same, and remain just as ambitious.
The goal right now isn’t necessarily ratcheting each one of those up; it’s actually trying to figure out how to best communicate, as I said, and give that assurance to the world that we are continuing on, that we will meet those targets that are already in place, that we’ll continue our policies, and look for new opportunities as well, when the time comes.
But really it’s about sharing that story, and trying to bring others on board as well, so whether that’s U.S. states through the U.S. Climate Alliance, or internationally, other regions, states, and cities through the Under2 Coalition. It’s a ratcheting up of that international—and also national—communication. It’s sharing experiences and lessons learned to really try to give others a push to come on board.
E: So, since you mentioned that, let’s talk a little bit more about these alliances with other states and countries, starting with the states. I know you’re teaming up with New York and Washington and others. How can you work together with these other states to synchronize and accomplish things that you’re not going to accomplish on your own?
Kleysteuber: As you mentioned, the Governor has launched—after the President pulled out of Paris—a U.S. Climate Alliance, which currently includes twelve other U.S. states, plus Puerto Rico. We’ve made a big effort to reach out to not only blue states but also red states. We currently have two of those twelve states that are Republican states. That’s Massachusetts and Vermont.
With these other states, I think there’s a number of tracks that it’s good to work on as we start to collaborate more closely together. One communication.
In terms of policies, we already have been cooperating with a number of these states, whether it’s with the Pacific states or other states, on vehicle emissions standards, on carbon pricing. There’s already a lot of cooperation on the technical side, but I think where these new alliances add value is issues like communication, where we may need to be communicating to the federal government about what we’re doing, or about how we’d like to defend policies that we already have in place that we’d like to continue; how we feel about what they’re doing at the federal level in terms of pulling out of Paris, or their work on the Clean Power Plan.
So I think there’ll be a lot of opportunities to bring these states together, and coordinate more closely on our communication efforts to make sure that we’re getting the messages we need together, collectively, to the federal government.
There’s also an opportunity to work on policies. Whether that is zero-emission vehicles, or increasing renewables in the energy grid, there’s a lot of opportunities for states to share their existing policies, the challenges and how they overcame them, to try potentially to harmonize a number of those policies that maybe other states are considering putting in place.
So, there’s definitely the potential for high-level political, slash, communication work, but also, at the technical level, to try to spread some of those most successful policies and most ambitious policies to other states that are interested in acting on climate change.
E: I know Massachusetts and Vermont currently have a Republican governor, but they are not generally thought of as Republican states. But it does show some flexibility at the state level.
Kleysteuber: That’s correct, yes.
The Governors Alliance is at the governors’ level, and it does include those two Republican governors, but, you’re right, just having a Republican governor is different from the challenges faced by those in states where their legislature as well—and the whole political system—is dominated by the Republican Party.
I think we’re always looking for new allies, and there’s always the hope that we will get that, quote-unquote, pure red state to come on board. So we’re always talking to others, and seeing where those opportunities lie.
E: Right. Because even in the red states, there is a local environmentalism, maybe, that doesn’t see itself as attached to the Democratic Party or Paris, but, it’s there. And speaking of other allies, one place to find them seems to be the city level, where there’s a really strong alliance of mayors to increase sustainability, not just in the U.S. but internationally. Is California working with that group, and specific cities or organizations, and if so, how?
Kleysteuber: Yes, there is the Climate Mayors group, which you referenced. So that’s 343 mayors, I believe at this point, who have pledged to adopt the Paris Agreement, and really support the goals that are outlined therein as well. Then in parallel to that, there’s also this new U.S. Climate Alliance, which I mentioned, which is just at the governors’ level, so at the states’ level. There’s also the Under2 Coalition, which California founded in 2015 in the run-up to the Paris Agreement, which brings together states, cities, and regions who have an ambitious target on climate change, so who are looking to reduce their emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
There in that group, in the Under2 Coalition, there are a number of cities that California works with. There are eight cities currently that are in the U.S. who have signed on to the Coalition, four of which are in California. To this point, the focus for us in the state has been bring on board other states, but through Under2, as you can see, we also work with cities, and even include national endorsers. National governments are able to endorse the fact that some nationals are a part of the solution—that’s where a lot of the policies take place—and support that effort.
So, to answer your question, there’s not a direct line, there’s not really a direct conversation. I think what’s happening after Paris is that everyone is stepping to the table. Everybody’s doing their part at their level. I think that’s really important to let a thousand flowers bloom, if you will, so that all of these non-party or non-national actors can come to the table in their own way and build their own alliances and see how far we get, and then down the road we’ll need to try to figure out how best to help each other, and how best to support each other, and what the overlap is, and how we create synergies as opposed to running up against each other.
So, I think those conversations will come. At this point, California has been very open to working with our cities and with others, through inclusion in the Under2 Coalition.
E: Great. So, they’re burgeoning and evolving, and the blueprint is still being laid out. “Under2” refers to keeping it under two degrees Centigrade, which is what we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change, right?
Kleysteuber: Yes, absolutely. There’s the reference to the two degree target, the well below two degrees, that’s laid out in the Paris Agreement. There’s also a reference to the fact that in the Under2 Coalition, the goal, as I mentioned, is to reduce emissions 80% below 1990 by 2050, or to achieve a two ton per capita goal for Under2 Coalition jurisdiction populations by 2050.
So there’s a number of “twos” really that we’re aiming for, if we want to maintain our overall average temperature increase globally to under two degrees.
E: A pretty clever title. Let’s now move to the international level, because I know your state has been talking to Mexico and Canada, even to China, about how to work together to fight climate change. So, what’s the content of these discussions, and how are the countries planning on working together with the State of California and perhaps other states?
Kleysteuber: Obviously Canada and Mexico are huge partners for California, huge trade partners and political partners, and just everything in between. There always has been an effort, I would say, from California to work very closely both with Canada and with Mexico on climate issues and on a number of other issues. And we do have, as you mentioned, a number of arrangements in place, and memoranda of understanding to work with both of these partners on climate change.
With Canada, the focus has historically been on carbon pricing, and really integrating those Canadian provinces that are interested in carbon pricing into our California program. As you know, we have already been linked with Quebec for a number of years now, and we are in the process of linking with Ontario. So, there are two provinces in Canada where there’s already a very clear and formal link between them and us on our climate change targets, and on how we meet those targets.
Canada has also recently signed on as a national endorser of the Under2 Coalition, so again they’re supporting that overall ambitious and science-driven goal.
With Mexico, they not only are a national endorser of the Under2 Coalition, they also have ten Mexican states that have endorsed the Under2 Coalition and are working towards that overall goal, and the work program that we have under the Under2 Coalition, which includes transparency, so how you measure, report, and verify greenhouse gas emissions. It includes collaboration on specific policies, so whether that’s zero-emission vehicles, or carbon pricing, or forestry, there’s work going on there.
Then the third is 2050 Pathways. That’s an effort to encourage all Under2 jurisdictions to do long term low emissions development planning, where they establish these long term goals and then see what large changes in the economy are needed to bring about those emissions reductions.
So, we’re working with Mexico, and with Canada, under the framework of the Under2 Coalition on those goals. With Mexico we even go further, I’d say, because we have, since 2014, a specific memorandum of understanding between California and Mexico on climate change and the environment, where we have four working groups that address climate change, zero-emission vehicles, clean air, and wildfires. That’s a very hands-on effort that involves two co-chairs for each topic—one from Mexico and one from California—and in some cases biweekly calls between the technical agencies in each place that work on those issues.
Then there are concrete actions, whether it’s workshops, or trainings, or just information sharing—documents that are translated that Mexico might want to use, or refer to, or build off of in their policies. There’s a lot of concrete collaboration that’s happening there.
E: So a lot of sharing of practices and ideas. Is it fair to say much of this was going on before Trump, for the past several years? So, have you noticed since Trump came into office, and especially since the pullout from Paris, have there been noticeable changes in the negotiations, and in the tone or the substance, or—building on my earlier question—is it basically just an acceleration of what was already happening?
Kleysteuber: It’s a good question. I think it’s hard to separate the two. What we can say is that there certainly was a larger trend happening before the election, and before this president pulled out of the Paris Agreement. You can see it dating back ten years to Governor Schwarzenegger signing into law AB 32 and establishing that ambitious goal at the time to achieve 1990 levels by 2020. You saw it in the establishment of the emissions trading program—the cap-and-trade program—that California is famous for around the world, and is one of the main reasons why other jurisdictions in other countries come to us to learn about that program.
So, you definitely saw an opening up, even at that point. And that was also in response to a federal administration that perhaps, in the eyes of the world, wasn’t doing its full part. So, there was definitely an impetus there that has continued.
I think the Paris Agreement was also a big turning point for California, where California started getting engaged much more on that U.N. process level. California took to Paris the Under2 Coalition that it had already launched earlier that year. By the time of Paris we were up to about a hundred signatories, and that really helped create some pressure and some momentum, and some assurance to the international community that they could go farther and deeper with the Paris Agreement, and that the expectations were high, and that in fact implementation and action were already happening on the ground. So, I think that was a big contribution that California already had back in 2015 in and around Paris and the Paris Agreement.
But, I think you’ve certainly seen a change in the level of interest that other countries especially have in California on the political level. There’s always been a technical interest—and I referred to cap and trade in particular—but now you really see, since the election, an increase in the political interest. The Secretary of the Environment was actually in Marrakech at the time of last year’s COP—last year’s big climate change meeting—when the election happened, and you could see almost immediately the uptick in the level and the number of other international delegations and high level representatives wanting to reach out to California and sit down with California to say, OK, in this time of Donald Trump, how can California step up, and fill the gap or, again, provide this assurance that things are really happening and will continue to happen in the United States over these next four years, and how can you encourage other U.S. states to come on board, and how can we share this message throughout the world?
So, there obviously has been an uptick, especially in that political interest.
You also referenced the Governor’s trip to China. He was able to sit down with President Xi and have a conversation about climate change. You’ve seen very recently the Minister of Environment of Germany come to California specifically to meet with the Governor about climate change and what’s happening at the federal level, and California’s role in all of this. You’ve seen the Prime Minister of Fiji come to California, also in the last couple weeks, to talk with the Governor and to announce that Governor Brown has been named as the Climate Envoy for states and regions to the COP presidency for this upcoming COP23.
So, yes, it’s not business as usual in the sense that California has a leadership role, and is willing to step up and take on that leadership role. But in terms of policies and ambition, we do see it kind of as business as usual. We still have our ambitious targets. We’re continuing towards meeting them, and will continue all of our policies that help us meet them. And also of course we’re always looking at how we can improve, as we have done over the past many years.
E: Of course, there’s a vacuum, and you’re rushing in to at least partly fill it—the black hole of the Trump Administration. But it does seem in some ways like California’s acting almost like its own sovereign nation. Is that fair to say, maybe too extreme, do you see this as temporary because of the excesses of the Trump Administration, or, with cities taking a larger role, maybe international governance is actually shifting, and California’s part of that? So, big picture, how do you see that
Kleysteuber: Big picture. Well, I’m not a lawyer, but I have worked in the U.N. climate change negotiations for a long time before being in California. Now since being in California, and having had that experience with the U.N. process, I’m very aware of the Compact Clause and a number of other things that definitely on the legal side point to the fact that California is not going to be ever really a party, for example, to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. At that level that we know that California is not going to supplant or usurp any federal role, because that’s not allowed by the Constitution.
So, given those sets of limitations, I don’t think California is looking to do that at all. We certainly are filling our role as the sixth largest economy, and as a leader in ambition and in a lot of these innovative policies, and in innovation itself, with Silicon Valley based here. I think we just really see our role as filling that hole, as it were, and giving assurance to the world that the U.S. is not going to fall off the map in terms of working towards ambitious emissions reductions.
But I think in recent years—and you can see this through cities’ activity, thorough states’ activity, and other non-state actors: the private sector, investors, the finance community—we’ve seen a lot more recognition that, for example, climate change is not going to be solved just at the United Nations level. It’s not going to get solved by an international treaty, be it legally binding or not. That’s not what’s going to make or break whether we save the planet from climate change.
Because, after all, all of that action that’s been agreed to under the Paris Agreement, for example, has to be implemented by states, by cities, with local regulations, local incentives, local policies, and local leadership. So I think you really are seeing that recognition that the action takes place on the ground locally, and that just having an international piece of paper signed saying that you want to stay well below two degrees is not enough. You have to have this bottom-up piece as well.
You need them working in parallel. I think they’re both important. But you certainly see that broader recognition, I think, after Paris
So, in that sense, California’s playing our part in that. And, yes, I think that has been catalyzed by the recent election. So, maybe that’s a good thing. Everybody’s taking up their individual roles and stepping up to the plate and seeing what they can do at home. Maybe that’ll actually help get us to the targets that we want to get to
E: Great. Thank you very much.
Kleysteuber: Sure. Thank you.