Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The surprisingly inexpensive cost of state-driven emission control strategies


Traditionally, analysis of the costs of cutting greenhouse gas emissions has assumed that governments would implement idealized, optimal policies such as uniform economy-wide carbon taxes. Yet actual policies in the real world, especially in large federal governments, are often highly heterogeneous and vary in political support and administrative capabilities within a country. While the benefits of heterogeneous action have been discussed widely for experimentation and leadership, little is known about its costs. Focusing on the United States, we represent plausible variation (by more than a factor of 3) in the stringency of state-led climate policy in a process-based integrated assessment model (GCAM-USA). For a wide array of national decarbonization targets, we find that the nationwide cost from heterogeneous subnational policies is only one-tenth higher than nationally uniform policies. Such results hinge on two critical technologies (advanced biofuels and electricity) for which inter-state trade ameliorates the economic efficiencies that might arise with heterogeneous action.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: State-level variations in public support for climate policy and its impact on carbon pricing under the Heterogeneous approach.
Fig. 2: Model-computed state-level carbon prices in 2050 to achieve a national target of 40% decarbonization by 2050 relative to 2005 under three subnational policy approaches.
Fig. 3: Reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions and carbon prices in 2050 in low- and high-supporting states.
Fig. 4: Reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions.
Fig. 5: Carbon mitigation cost in 2050 as a fraction of projected 2050 gross domestic product (GDP), by national mitigation effort (20–80% decarbonization, indicated as 20–80% D) and by subnational policy approach (Uniform, Hybrid and Heterogeneous).
Fig. 6: Sensitivity analysis of carbon mitigation cost for two levels of national mitigation effort.

Data availability

The datasets generated during and analysed in the current study are available from a public repository (

Code availability

The GCAM and GCAM-USA model are available for download from Detailed model documentation is available online at


  1. Ostrom, E. Beyond markets and states: polycentric governance of complex economic systems. Am. Econ. Rev. 100, 641–672 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. De Búrca, G., Keohane, R. O. & Sabel, C. Global experimentalist governance. Br. J. Political Sci. 44, 477–486 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Rabe, B. G. Statehouse and Greenhouse (Brookings Institution Press, 2004).

  4. Sabel, C. & Victor, D. G. Governing global problems under uncertainty: making bottom-up climate policy work. Clim. Change 144, 15–27 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. McCollum, D. L. et al. Energy investment needs for fulfilling the Paris Agreement and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Nat. Energy 3, 589–599 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Rogelj, J. et al. Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2 °C. Nature 534, 631 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Rogelj, J. et al. Scenarios towards limiting global mean temperature increase below 1.5 °C. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 325–332 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Fragkos, P. et al. Coupling national and global models to explore policy impacts of NDCs. Energy Policy 118, 462–473 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Lowrey, A. Are states really more efficient than the federal government? The Atlantic (2 October 2017).

  10. America is All In.

  11. U.S. State Climate Action Plans. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (2020).

  12. State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals. National Conference of State Legislatures (2020).

  13. Fulfilling America’s Pledge: How States, Cities, and Businesses are Leading the United States to a Low-Carbon Future (Bloomberg Philanthropies, Rocky Mountain Institute and Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, 2018).

  14. Lempert, R. et al. Pathways to 2050: Alternative Pathways for Decarbonizing the U.S. Economy. C2ES Climate Innovation 2050 (2019).

  15. Hultman, N. E. et al. Fusing subnational with national climate action is central to decarbonization: the case of the United States. Nat. Commun. 11, 5255 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Calvin, K. et al. GCAM v5.1: representing the linkages between energy, water, land, climate, and economic systems. Geosci. Model Dev. 12, 677–698 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. D’Autume, A., Schubert, K. & Withagen, C. Should the carbon price be the same in all countries? J. Public Econ. Theory 18, 709–725 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Böhringer, C. & Rutherford, T. F. Carbon taxes with exemptions in an open economy: a general equilibrium analysis of the German tax initiative. J. Environ. Econ. Manag. 32, 189–203 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Boeters, S. Optimally differentiated carbon prices for unilateral climate policy. Energy Econ. 45, 304–312 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Page, B. I. & Shapiro, R. Y. Effects of public opinion on policy. Am. Political Sci. Rev. 77, 175–190 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Burstein, P. The impact of public opinion on public policy: a review and an agenda. Political Res. Q. 56, 29–40 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Bromley-Trujillo, R. & Poe, J. The importance of salience: public opinion and state policy action on climate change. J. Public Policy (2018).

  23. Rules of the Senate. U.S. Senate

  24. Fawcett, A. A., Clarke, L. E. & Weyant, J. P. Introduction to EMF 24. Energy J. 35, (2014).

  25. Williams, J. H. et al. Pathways to deep decarbonization in the United States. The U.S. Report of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways project of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (2014).

  26. Iyer, G. et al. Measuring progress from nationally determined contributions to mid-century strategies. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 871–874 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Clarke, L. et al. International climate policy architectures: overview of the EMF 22 International Scenarios. Energy Econ. 31, S64–S81 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Clarke, L. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. IPCC Working Group III Contribution to AR5 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  29. Brandeis. New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann (1932).

  30. United Nations Convention on Climate Change. FCCC/INFORMAL/84 GE.05-62220 (E) 200705 (United Nations, 1992).

  31. Wigley, T. M. L., Richels, R. & Edmonds, J. A. Economic and environmental choices in the stabilization of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Nature 379, 240–243 (1996).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Keohane, R. O. & Victor, D. G. The regime complex for climate change. Perspect. Politics 9, 7–23 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Keohane, R. O. & Victor, D. G. Cooperation and discord in global climate policy. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 570 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Biermann, F., Pattberg, P., van Asselt, H. & Zelli, F. The fragmentation of global governance architectures: a framework for analysis. Glob. Environ. Politics 9, 14–40 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Ollivier-Mrejen, R., Michel, P. & Pham, M.-H. Chronicles of a Science Diplomacy Initiative on Climate Change. Science and Diplomacy (2018).

  36. Hale, T. ‘All hands on deck’: the Paris Agreement and nonstate climate action. Glob. Environ. Politics 16, 12–22 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Hovi, J., Sprinz, D. F., Sælen, H. & Underdal, A. The club approach: a gateway to effective climate co-operation? Br. J. Political Sci. 49, 1071–1096 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Bauer, N. et al. Quantification of an efficiency–sovereignty trade-off in climate policy. Nature 588, 261–266 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Bosetti, V., Carraro, C., Sgobbi, A. & Tavoni, M. Delayed action and uncertain stabilisation targets. How much will the delay cost? Clim. Change 96, 299–312 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Jakob, M., Luderer, G., Steckel, J., Tavoni, M. & Monjon, S. Time to act now? Assessing the costs of delaying climate measures and benefits of early action. Clim. Change 114, 79–99 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Schaeffer, M. et al. Mid- and long-term climate projections for fragmented and delayed-action scenarios. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Change 90, 257–268 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Iyer, G. C. et al. Improved representation of investment decisions in assessments of CO2 mitigation. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 436 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Fuss, S. et al. Negative emissions—Part 2: costs, potentials and side effects. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 063002 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Climate change and land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems (IPCC, 2019).

  45. Sanchez, D. L., Johnson, N., McCoy, S. T., Turner, P. A. & Mach, K. J. Near-term deployment of carbon capture and sequestration from biorefineries in the United States. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 4875 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Cochran, J., Denholm, P., Speer, B. & Miller, M. Grid Integration and the Carrying Capacity of the U.S. Grid to Incorporate Variable Renewable Energy. (2015).

  47. Victor, D. G. et al. Turning Paris into reality at the University of California. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 183–185 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Mission Possible: Reaching Net-Zero Carbon Emissions from Harder-to-Abate Sectors by Mid-Century. Energy Transitions Commission (2018).

  49. Howe, P. D., Mildenberger, M., Marlon, J. R. & Leiserowitz, A. Geographic variation in opinions on climate change at state and local scales in the USA. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 596 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. U.S. Energy Information Administration. The State Energy Data System (SEDS).

  51. Peng, W. et al. Datasets for ‘The Surprisingly Inexpensive Cost of State-Driven Emission Control Strategies’. Zenodo. (2021).

  52. Clarke, J. F. & Edmonds, J. A. Modelling energy technologies in a competitive market. Energy Econ. 15, 123–129 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Fawcett, A. A. et al. Can Paris pledges avert severe climate change? Science 350, 1168 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank B. Keohane, D. Tingley, L. Stokes, J. Jenkins, K. Fisher-Vanden and participants at seminars at Penn State University (September 2019), Johns Hopkins University (September 2019) and Princeton University (November 2019) on related themes. W.P. received a summer research stipend from Penn State School of International Affairs. G.I., M.B. and J.A.E. received support from the Global Technology Strategy Program. D.G.V. draws funding, in part, from the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit R&D organization focused on the electric power sector. D.G.V. is also supported partly by donations to the Scripps Institutional Oceanography for research on emergency responses to climate change.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



W.P., G.I. and D.G.V conceived and designed the study. W.P., G.I. and M.B performed the model simulations with data input from J.M. W.P. analysed the data. W.P., G.I. and D.G.V wrote the manuscript with important input from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wei Peng.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

D.G.V. is a consultant to the shareholder group Engine No. 1. The other authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Aleh Cherp, Laurent Drouet and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions for four levels of national mitigation efforts under two subnational policy approaches.

Here we show the reduction in CO2 emissions in 2050 relative to 2005. The first and second rows show the results under the uniform and heterogeneous approach, respectively. Different colors of the bars show the mitigation in different economic sectors. The white numbers represent the percent contribution of electricity sector to total CO2 mitigation. Low, Medium and High represents the low-, medium-, and high-supporting states, respectively.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Net electricity trade in 2050 for 15 grid regions.

a, ‘80% Uniform’: 80% national decarbonization with the uniform approach; b, ‘80% Heterogeneous’: 80% national decarbonization with the heterogeneous approach; c, Changes in ‘80% Heterogeneous’ relative to ‘80% Uniform’. For a) and b), the background colors represent the net electricity export from a grid region (orange) or the net import into a grid region (blue). The electricity transmission patterns remain largely the same under these two subnational policy approaches. For c), the background colors represent the absolute differences in net electricity export (that is, generation minus demand) between these two approaches. The black numbers show the percent differences: the positive numbers indicate that a net exporting (importing) grid in “80% Uniform” further increases its export (import) in “80% Heterogeneous”, while the negative numbers indicate that a net exporting (importing) grid in “80% Uniform” reduces its export (import) in “80% Heterogeneous”. In other words, 13 out of the 15 grids increase their electricity trade with other grids under the Heterogeneous approach. The 15 electricity grid regions are presented in Supplementary Fig. 5.

Extended Data Fig. 3 CO2 sequestration by bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology in 2050.

a, Total CO2 sequestration from BECCS; b, CO2 sequestration from BECCS for bioliquids production; c, CO2 sequestration from BECCS for electricity production. 20%-80% represent the levels of national mitigation effort. ‘U’ and ‘H’ represent Uniform and Heterogeneous policy approaches, respectively. Low, Medium and High represent low-, medium-, and high-supporting states.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Variations in state-level carbon intensity and mitigation costs to achieve 80% decarbonization nationally.

a, Carbon intensity in 2015; b, Reduction in carbon intensity in 2050 relative to 2015, to achieve 80% national decarbonization with uniform or heterogeneous approach; c, Mitigation cost in 2050 as a fraction of 2050 GDP, to achieve 80% national decarbonization with uniform or heterogeneous approach. All economic values are presented in US$2015.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Carbon mitigation costs for four levels of national mitigation efforts under alternative formations of policy heterogeneity.

Here we show the carbon mitigation cost in 2050 as a fraction of projected 2050 GDP, by three groups of states (low, medium and high-supporting states). ‘Uni’ stands for the uniform approach. Het, Het (Gov), Het (LN), Het (+range), Het (3 zero), Het (5 zero) and Het (AP) represent different heterogeneous approaches with detailed description in the Sensitivity Analysis section and Supplementary Methods. The inserted figure shows the contribution by low-, medium-, and high-supporting states to national total CO2 emissions in 201650.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions when carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is not available.

Here we show the reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions in 2050 relative to 2015 for: a, National total; b, Low-supporting states; c, Medium-supporting states; d, High-supporting states. Different colors of the bars represent different economic sectors. The white numbers represent the percent contribution of the electricity sector to total CO2 mitigation. 40% U – 40% decarbonization with uniform approach; 40% H – 40% decarbonization with heterogeneous approach; 80% U – 80% decarbonization with uniform approach; 80% H - 80% decarbonization with heterogeneous approach.

Supplementary information

Supplementary information

Supplementary Notes 1–4, Methods and Figs. 1–12.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Peng, W., Iyer, G., Binsted, M. et al. The surprisingly inexpensive cost of state-driven emission control strategies. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 738–745 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing