Despite "political infighting" that has prevented comprehensive policies to fight global warming, the United States has made significant policy progress over the past decade to curb carbon emissions, according to a new report released Monday.
A series of "messy but useful" alternative energy incentives, carbon regulation and innovation – mostly at the state level – has reduced the country's contribution to climate change, according to The Policy Climate, a comprehensive report on climate change policy in India, Europe, Brazil, China and the United States.
"There's a lot of angst or worry that we're not doing anything," says David Nelson, of the San Francisco-based Climate Policy Initiative and author of the report. "But quite clearly what we're doing has managed to stop the growth of emissions in a number of sectors."
Over the past seven years, carbon emissions have fallen by 13 percent in the United States.
Nelson says the gains haven't been because of a concerted effort to fight climate change. The issue is still highly partisan—just 69 percent of Americans believe Earth is warming, according to a recent PEW poll.
Instead, a series of policy reforms focused on improving the economy, creating jobs and making the country less dependent on foreign oil have led to less carbon emissions overall. Tax credits for alternative energy sources, local antipollution laws, federal automobile fuel efficiency standards and new, more efficient energy technologies have led to a net overall positive.
"When you put it all together, you're tying together a series of different policy objectives," he says. "We're looking at energy security, creating new industries, curbing local air pollution, creating rooftop solar [power]. When you have multiple objectives other than just climate change, it's easier to justify those policies."
Those different objectives are what has made the last decade of climate change policy "messy," with much of the work being done outside of the federal level. The fragmentation of policies has occurred because of the "political reality in which we're involved." Republicans and Democrats, he says, can't agree on what, if anything, needs to be done about climate change.
Nelson says he'd like to see more comprehensive federal policies specifically designed to target climate change, but that because "there has been so much policy, spread unevenly across states, sectors and levels of government," lawmakers can have a good idea of what works and what doesn't.
"The fact that we've had different goals is both good and bad—it's bad because there have been missed opportunities in some states, but it's good from the perspective that we have some leading states—California and New Jersey come to mind—that are providing examples others can learn from."