NEWS Science Magazine: In boosting climate goals, California daring others to follow


1 May 2015 3:30 pm

When Cal­i­for­nia Gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown announced ear­li­er this week that he was ratch­et­ing up his state’s already ambi­tious green­house gas reduc­tion tar­get, he put his state in a famil­iar place: try­ing to set the reg­u­la­to­ry pace for the rest of the nation, and even the world. And although some crit­ics warn that California’s aggres­sive effort to cut emis­sions will harm its econ­o­my, Brown’s allies say there are plen­ty of data to sug­gest the state could cash in on curb­ing cli­mate change.


CA State Senator Fran Pavely introduces SB32, the Global Warming Solutions Act to take California from 2020 - 2050.  Kammen at right.

CA State Sen­a­tor Fran Pave­ly intro­duces SB32, the Glob­al Warm­ing Solu­tions Act to take Cal­i­for­nia from 2020 — 2050. Kam­men at right.

[For Kam­men’s tes­ti­mo­ny on this bill, see the pub­li­ca­tions list for April 29, 2015]

Cal­i­for­nia has a long his­to­ry of push­ing the enve­lope on envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. It cre­at­ed the world’s first vehi­cle exhaust lim­its in the 1960s, the first appli­ance ener­gy effi­cien­cy reg­u­la­tions in the 1970s, and the first low-car­bon fuel stan­dard 8 years ago. Now, the state—which boasts the world’s eighth largest economy—wants to lead efforts to keep glob­al warm­ing below 2°C.

Brown’s exec­u­tive order Wednes­day builds on a land­mark law that Cal­i­for­nia enact­ed in 2006 to cut its green­house gas emis­sions back to 1990 lev­els by 2020, in part by cre­at­ing its own cap-and-trade mar­ket. That law sur­vived court chal­lenges and a hard-fought, well-fund­ed vot­er ref­er­en­dum to repeal it. Since imple­men­ta­tion, the law has result­ed in 100 mil­lion tons of green­house gas reduc­tions (rough­ly equiv­a­lent to tak­ing 20 mil­lion cars off the road), bring­ing the state halfway to its 2020 goal. Pol­i­cy debates in Cal­i­for­nia increas­ing­ly have been focus­ing on what comes after 2020.

Brown answered that ques­tion with what he billed as “the most ambi­tious green­house gas reduc­tion tar­get in North Amer­i­ca.” In fact, it is in line with the most aggres­sive goal unveiled by any coun­try in the run-up to an agree­ment on a new inter­na­tion­al agree­ment on cli­mate change expect­ed to be final­ized at a Decem­ber meet­ing in Paris. Specif­i­cal­ly, Cal­i­for­nia now aims to cut car­bon emis­sions 40% below 1990 lev­els by 2030—a goal on par with that adopt­ed by the 28-nation Euro­pean Union for Paris.

Of course, Cal­i­for­nia won’t be sit­ting at the nego­ti­at­ing table in Paris. But the Gold­en State’s $2.2 tril­lion econ­o­my dwarfs that of all but a few of the nations that will be forg­ing the new cli­mate change deal.

Those famil­iar with the U.N. process say Cal­i­for­nia can now serve as an impor­tant lodestar for the Paris effort, espe­cial­ly because—unlike Europe—it has been able to gen­er­ate jobs even as it has slashed car­bon emissions.

An aggres­sive stan­dard by a healthy econ­o­my that is tech­no­log­i­cal­ly at the cut­ting edge sets a bench­mark,” Michael Oppen­heimer, an atmos­pher­ic sci­en­tist at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, told Sci­enceInsid­er. “It rep­re­sents a con­fi­dence that there are eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties in get­ting ahead of the curve.”

Brown and his allies will be able to sum­mon plen­ty of data to back his deci­sion, say close observers of the gov­er­nor’s long-telegraphed move. Whether assess­ing ener­gy, eco­nom­ics, or pol­i­tics, the gov­er­nor has the num­bers to show that new, high­er goals are achiev­able and desir­able. The key ques­tion is whether Cal­i­for­ni­a’s tech-heavy, low-coal econ­o­my makes it unique and whether it can indeed serve as a mod­el for trans­form­ing more car­bon-depen­dent states and nations.

A key study bol­ster­ing Brown’s exec­u­tive order—the PATHWAYS project com­mis­sioned by the state’s ener­gy regulators—came out ear­li­er this month. In it, San Francisco–based con­sult­ing firm Ener­gy + Envi­ron­men­tal Eco­nom­ics (E3) used con­ser­v­a­tive assump­tions about how fast new tech­nol­o­gy would devel­op to mod­el sev­er­al ways Cal­i­for­nia could achieve 26% to 38% reduc­tions in green­house gas emis­sions by 2030. All involve ratch­et­ing up renew­ables from 25% to at least 50% of Cal­i­for­ni­a’s elec­tric­i­ty mix, as well as aggres­sive deploy­ment of LED light­ing and oth­er steps to curb ener­gy use. Also key: a major trans­for­ma­tion in auto­mo­bile fuel­ing, with heavy empha­sis on elec­tric and hydro­gen fuel cell cars.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, E3 found that such mea­sures would add no more than $18 per month to the aver­age house­hold ener­gy bill and could actu­al­ly wind up sav­ing Cal­i­for­ni­ans mon­ey if U.S. gaso­line prices rise in the future. That would not be new for Cal­i­for­nia. Already, Cal­i­for­nia ranks near the bot­tom of all states in the amount of mon­ey spent on ener­gy per capi­ta. Thanks to strong ener­gy effi­cien­cy pro­grams as well as mod­er­ate weath­er, ener­gy con­sumed per capi­ta by Cal­i­for­ni­ans is about 36% below the U.S. average.

It shows we already have the tech­ni­cal know-how to achieve ambi­tious tar­gets while con­tin­u­ing robust eco­nom­ic growth,” said Eri­ca More­house, senior attor­ney for the Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund in Sacra­men­to, who has been work­ing on “beyond 2020” issues in California.

The Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Ener­gy Lab­o­ra­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, has sim­i­lar­ly been mod­el­ing poten­tial path­ways to deep­er decar­boniza­tion of the state’s econ­o­my. It has mod­eled 13 options for the state, from accel­er­at­ing its already nation-lead­ing solar pro­gram to ramp­ing up nuclear pow­er. Both options are “tech­ni­cal­ly achiev­able and eco­nom­i­cal­ly rea­son­able,” says ener­gy expert Daniel Kam­men, the direc­tor of the lab. Some path­ways would cost Cal­i­for­nia con­sumers less than they would pay if the state had no car­bon tar­get at all, he said.

The move to clean­er ener­gy could also cre­ate more jobs in Cal­i­for­nia than stick­ing to fos­sil fuels, Kam­men says his lab’s research has found. And he and oth­ers argue that idea has been borne out by Cal­i­for­ni­a’s recent expe­ri­ence. The state led the Unit­ed States in job growth over the past year, adding near­ly 460,000 new pay­roll posi­tions over 12 months, end­ing in March. Many new jobs have direct ties to the state’s cli­mate change program—including major tran­sit projects—and the State Build­ing and Con­struc­tion Trades Coun­cil of Cal­i­for­nia (an alliance of labor groups) has sup­port­ed pro­pos­als for increas­ing Cal­i­for­ni­a’s goals for clean­er energy.

It comes down to a sim­ple, but intel­lec­tu­al­ly deep con­cept,” Kam­men says. “Every time you stop burn­ing a fuel and start invest­ing in ener­gy effi­cien­cy and renew­able ener­gy, you’re invest­ing in peo­ple and com­pa­nies and inno­va­tion instead of pour­ing mon­ey into a non­re­new­able resource.”

Kam­men argues that Cal­i­for­ni­a’s go-it-alone pol­i­cy has already had an influ­ence on inter­na­tion­al talks. He points to both last fal­l’s bilat­er­al cli­mate change deal between the Unit­ed States and Chi­na, and Mex­i­co’s recent­ly announced plan to cut its emis­sions 25%, regard­less of what oth­er nations pledge. “Those are exact­ly in the Cal­i­for­nia intel­lec­tu­al mod­el,” Kam­men said, “It’s ‘We are going to forge ahead, and the green jobs will go to those who act.’ ”

Still, some argue that Cal­i­for­ni­a’s econ­o­my may yet suf­fer because of its aggres­sive effort on cli­mate change. Last fall, for instance, Loren Kaye, pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia Foun­da­tion for Com­merce and Edu­ca­tion, a think tank affil­i­at­ed with the Cal­i­for­nia Cham­ber of Com­merce, warned that Cal­i­for­ni­ans could rebel when a gas sur­charge relat­ed to cut­ting car­bon emis­sions began direct­ly to hit the state’s motorists this year. So far, how­ev­er, there has­n’t been great shock, because aver­age pump prices ini­tial­ly fell around the Unit­ed States this year due to falling glob­al oil prices.

In an op-ed in The Sacra­men­to Bee last fall, Kaye repeat­ed a warn­ing that oppo­nents have sound­ed since Cal­i­for­ni­a’s cli­mate action effort began: Cal­i­for­nia will lose busi­ness­es and jobs to oth­er states and nations that don’t adopt sim­i­lar­ly strin­gent reduc­tions on car­bon emis­sions. “Lead­er­ship isn’t just being ahead of the pack—it’s get­ting the rest of the pack to fol­low,” Kaye wrote.

Both boost­ers and crit­ics of Brown’s tar­gets can agree on one thing: Because Cal­i­for­nia accounts for less than 2% of the world’s green­house gas emis­sions, the state’s effort will only help address glob­al warm­ing if it inspires oth­ers to take a sim­i­lar plung.

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