12/11/2019 - Legal Analysis - State & Local Climate Strategies

U.S. City Climate Commitments: Obstacles and Opportunities in the Building Sector Post-Paris Agreement

by Caitlin McCoy

All eyes are on U.S. cities and states as the federal government pulls away from the Paris Agreement. A picture is starting to emerge of what it looks like for cities in the United Statesto mitigate and adapt to climate change. The balance between state and local authority frames these pictures, determining what sectors cities can regulate to drive reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The built environment is an important sector, located at the intersection between significant emissions reductions potential and local control.

In this article, I discuss opportunities for cities to reduce emissions in the building sector and the legal frameworks that facilitate and pose challenges to transforming the sector. I cover the structure of state and local authority over the building sector that stems from state police powers and is shaped by Dillon’s Rule, Home Rule, or a hybrid system unique to a given state. I describe how states and cities use building energy codes, building rating systems, and other mechanisms to regulate the energy efficiency of new and existing buildings.

I analyze Austin, TX, Boulder, CO, and Chicago, IL as case studies to explore the interaction between city efforts to reduce GHG emissions from buildings and the state’s legal authority structure for the building sector. I also compare efforts in the U.S. to European Union directives on building energy performance to assess how their policies strike a balance between setting standards to make progress toward specific goals and providing flexibility for implementation in Member States. Finally, I reflect on the opportunities and difficulties that U.S. cities face as they work to uphold climate commitments and aim to deliver their share of reductions to the U.S. Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement.

This article was written in connection with the Maryland Journal of International Law’s Fall 2018 Symposium, Transnational Perspectives on U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The article will appear in Volume 34 of the Maryland Journal of International Law, forthcoming 2019.

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