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Save the planet and save money? Yes we can

A new global agreement on climate change could be completed later this month in Paris.

It's a good thing, because epic droughts, record-breaking heat and cold waves, and killer storms have become the new normal, validating scientists' long-time predictions. But pledges from national governments alone will not be sufficient to solve this global existential challenge — they must be backed up by action.

Daisy Gilardini | Image Bank | Getty Images

The world needs a fresh approach and there is good news coming from our states, provinces, cities, and other "sub-national" governments.

In October 2014, at the World Summit of Regions for Climate, the "Paris Declaration" was signed by organizations representing over 3,000 of these regional governments from every continent.

These regions, in what might be called the "bottom-up" approach, are implementing climate change solutions that are boosting local economies and saving money for taxpayers.

For example, California has undertaken numerous actions to cut emissions through its Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, and a Renewable Portfolio Standard that requires 33 percent of its energy to come from renewables by 2020.

A recent study from the non-profit R20 Regions of Climate Action, the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute for State & Local Policy, and experts at Yale University shows that if every state in the U.S. followed California's lead, two remarkable things would happen.

First, the U.S. could retire all of its coal-fired power plants and far exceed its GHGreduction goals set under the last climate agreement (the 1997 "Kyoto accord")and easily achieve new targets needed for a successful Paris deal this year.

Second, the country would enjoy the same booming economy and job growth that California experienced coming out of the recent recession, when the state's economy grew 50 percent faster than the rest of the nation thanks to energy efficiency projects, renewable energy deployment, alternative fuels innovation, and a successful international carbon cap-and-trade program.

In another great example from that study, the Canadian province of British Columbia has had a carbon tax since 2008 covering all fossil-fuel combustion (which accounted for 71 percent of the province's total GHG emissions in 2012).

If Canada were to adopt a similar nationwide carbon tax, it could achieve 35 percent of the country's 2020 GHG reduction goal. The study also shows that these exciting developments are not happening in North America alone.

Take the Oran region of Algeria and its new "zero waste" program. Expanding it to the national level would reduce the country's carbon emissions by as much as 52 million tons between 2015 and 2020.

Yes, if national governments look for examples in their own regions or among those coordinating with their local governments, they will find enough GHG reduction opportunities to make bold new commitments in Paris that will adequately address the climate challenge we face.

Regions are in the best position to drive change, because they can identify the needs and opportunities among all local stakeholders from the "bottom up" and avoid divisive politics that too often stymie progress in some national capitols,including Washington DC.

There is no time to lose and, with these great examples all over the world already proving the environmental and economic case, no more excuses for waiting.

Commentary by Terry Tamminen, Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency in the Schwarzenegger administration. He has authored numerous books on sustainability, and is a co-founder of the R20 Regions of Climate Action. Follow him on Twitter @terrytamminen.