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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