December 21, 2020
Shayna Steingard

Meaningful, positive climate action at the federal level has been scarce these last four years. Granted, climate change is such a massive, complex problem it is difficult to know where to start. But this inaction doesn’t stem from feeling overwhelmed. Rather, an epidemic of willful climate paralysis exists at the highest levels of the U.S. government, and the administration has deliberately ignored and even exacerbated climate change. In this federal action vacuum, some states have taken up the mantle of climate action.

As of fall, 23 states, as well as the District of Columbia, set greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets, a significant uptick in the number of targets nationally, especially over the last two to three years. An emission target is a goal to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses (like carbon dioxide or methane that trap heat in the atmosphere), by a certain amount before a specified date.

Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant central Wyoming
Greg Goebel

For example, California has a target to reduce GHG emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The year 1990 serves as a baseline for the state to measure its progress on reductions. California also has a target of reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2045. “Net zero” or carbon neutrality means either balancing carbon dioxide emissions with an equal amount of carbon dioxide removal or complete elimination of emissions.  

States enact these targets in two different ways. In the California example, the first target was put in place through executive action, meaning action by the governor, while the second target was created through statutory action, meaning action by the state’s legislature. Targets can also differ in their scope and can either focus on specific sectors (such as transportation, industry, electricity, etc.), or they can have an economy-wide focus like the California examples.   

While it is critical to have climate goals like these emission reduction targets, it is equally critical to have a plan to achieve those goals. Consequently, states develop Climate Action Plans, which serve as roadmaps detailing what supportive actions state and local governments can take across sectors to meet climate goals. These plans may also include additional environmental, economic and social goals tailored specifically to that state.

With the publication of Nevada’s State Climate Strategy last week, 31 states and Washington, D.C., have published a Climate Action Plan. Spurred by executive action from Gov. Steve Sisolak, this newest climate strategy provides a framework for Nevadans to decrease their GHG emissions economy-wide, outlines opportunities for adaptation and resilience and paves the way for continued action on climate. The plan is designed to help Nevada achieve its aggressive climate goals, written in the legislature last year through SB254. Nevada must reduce its GHG emissions compared to 2005 levels 28% by 2025, 45% by 2030 and reach zero or near-zero by 2050.

Solar Panels at Topaz Solar 2
Sarah Swenty/USFWS

One feature common to all the Climate Action Plans is the anticipated reliance on, and expansion of, renewable energies such as solar and wind. Nevada is working hard to leverage its massive solar resources to systematically retire its coal and natural gas power generation in favor of clean solar energy. In fact, Nevada has the highest solar potential in the U.S. and recently approved the construction of the largest utility-scale solar plant in the nation, Gemini Solar, a 690MW facility. With more solar permits awaiting approval and likely many more to be submitted, it is imperative Nevada and all states approach the impending renewable energy buildout proactively and thoughtfully. 

While renewable energy is itself, a solution to environmental problems like climate change, renewable energy development can also have environmental and resource implications. For example, the development of large solar and wind facilities can lead to habitat fragmentation and loss, which can be especially difficult for imperiled species already under stress from climate change or other environmental burdens. In Nevada’s Mojave Desert, the federally threatened desert tortoise is just one of the species that lives in prime solar country in the sun-soaked desert. Siting solar in ways that don’t further endanger the desert tortoise is a primary concern for Defenders of Wildlife. We call this type of siting, smart from the start. It’s a framework that helps steer projects to sites that have low environmental value, low-conflict or are degraded areas to avoid or minimize negative impacts to wildlife and important ecological, cultural and agricultural areas. 
In Nevada’s statewide strategy, the state is starting out on the right foot by acknowledging the need for a smart from the start framework. 

Desert Tortoise Joshua Tree NP
Kurt Moses/NPS

The Nevada strategy states, “…engagement should shift to a more-proactive “smart from the start” planning posture to enhance the state’s support of optimized siting that better balances clean energy goals with impacts to natural lands, cultural resources, recreation, wildlife, and other conservation values.”

To build renewable energy responsibly, it is important that as states attempt to achieve their climate goals and develop their Climate Action Plans, they also think holistically about renewable energy development’s environmental consequences.

At Defenders, we cheer on the executive and statutory efforts in states like Nevada, who are unwilling to sit still in the face of climate change. Through aggressive emissions targets, and a smart holistic Climate Action Plan, Nevada can push forward toward a cleaner energy future enjoyed by both Nevadans and its iconic wildlife, like the desert tortoise.

Interested in whether your state has created climate change targets? Check out this map of the U.S. created by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, which details each state’s executive and statutory emissions targets. And check out whether your state has a Climate Action Plan by perusing this map created by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.  


Shayna Steingard headshot

Shayna Steingard

Renewable Energy and Wildlife Policy Analyst
As Renewable Energy and Wildlife Policy Analyst, Shayna primarily focuses on wind-wildlife interactions related to species such as condors, cranes and prairie grouse, as well as solar energy development in the Mojave Desert and impacts to the desert tortoise.

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