NEWS California can do better than carbon neutrality by 2045

Opin­ion piece in the Los Ange­les Times, May 17, 2022

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      Cal­i­for­nia can do bet­ter than car­bon neu­tral­ity by 2045


Ten years ago, many Cal­i­for­ni­ans could not have imag­ined the cli­mate night­mare we are liv­ing today — dark orange skies dur­ing wild­fire sea­son, heat waves in the dead of win­ter, manda­tory water restric­tions amid crip­pling drought.

With­out urgent action, we may well look back on this moment as the calm before the storm. Over the course of the next decade, California’s biggest cli­mate chal­lenges — hot­ter sum­mers, a shorter rainy sea­son and more destruc­tive wild­fires — could dou­ble in intensity.

It’s against this back­drop that the Cal­i­for­nia Air Resources Board (CARB) last week released a draft of our state’s scop­ing plan, a blue­print for com­bat­ing cli­mate change that will guide California’s pol­icy for years. Despite the stakes for Cal­i­for­ni­ans, and although my research indi­cates the state could actu­ally become car­bon neg­a­tive by 2030, the draft pro­posal would delay reach­ing car­bon neu­tral until 2045. The bar­ri­ers to a tar­get of 2030 are polit­i­cal, not technical.

The draft plan calls for invest­ment in new fos­sil fuel elec­tric­ity resources, and it relies on unproven and costly car­bon cap­ture tech­nolo­gies that would lock in fos­sil fuel pol­lu­tion. Adopt­ing this approach would be lazy, non­sen­si­cal and racially unjust. Dur­ing the cur­rent 45-​​day period for pub­lic review of the plan, Cal­i­for­nia has the chance to choose a smarter path.

An aerial view of wetlands next to a power station

The Hunt­ing­ton Beach Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion includes a nat­ural gas gen­er­a­tor that began oper­a­tion in 2020.

                                                                     (Allen J. Sch­aben /​ Los Ange­les Times)

Renew­able energy, even when cou­pled with energy stor­age, is cheaper than fos­sil fuels. California’s own state laws say that renew­able energy must be pri­or­i­tized before build­ing out expen­sive and pol­lut­ing gas power plants. Instead, Cal­i­for­nia must set ambi­tious tar­gets that imme­di­ately cut pol­lu­tion through no-​​regrets strategies.

If we fall short of the cli­mate action that sci­ence demands, Cal­i­for­ni­ans, and espe­cially lower-​​income Cal­i­for­ni­ans and com­mu­ni­ties of color, will pay the price. What’s more, we could see this failed model repli­cated across other states and nations. It’s not hyper­bole to say bil­lions of peo­ple could be worse off if Cal­i­for­nia fails to lead.

By the same token, if our state sets an ambi­tious but achiev­able goal — like car­bon neu­tral­ity by 2030 or 2035 — the ben­e­fits rip­ple widely. Other states and nations are look­ing to Cal­i­for­nia. If we set an ambi­tious tar­get and focus future pol­icy toward meet­ing it, oth­ers are more likely to adapt as well. Even when cli­mate goals are not reached, they keep poli­cies and invest­ments mov­ing in the right direction.

Last sum­mer, when he directed CARB to exam­ine accel­er­at­ing California’s cli­mate tar­gets to 2035 or sooner, Gov. Gavin New­som said “sci­ence demands we do more.” Hav­ing just announced a his­toric $32-​​billion invest­ment in cli­mate pro­grams over the next five years, he must now step in and ensure that reg­u­la­tors live up to his call to increase cli­mate ambi­tion across the board.

To get this plan­ning process back on track, reg­u­la­tors must start by cor­rect­ing the flawed method­ol­ogy that is the under­pin­ning of their cur­rent pro­posal. CARB’s eco­nomic and jobs mod­el­ing fails to incor­po­rate both the true cost of delay­ing emis­sions reduc­tions and the full health and soci­etal ben­e­fits from more ambi­tious emis­sions reduc­tions. Put sim­ply, Cal­i­for­nia can cre­ate more jobs and more pros­per­ity with renew­ables than we can with fos­sil fuels.

In devel­op­ing the scop­ing plan, CARB staff used a mea­sure called the social cost of car­bon, which puts a dol­lar value on the dam­ages cre­ated by addi­tional green­house gas emis­sions. The prob­lem is, these esti­mates vastly under­es­ti­mated the costs of delay­ing cli­mate action.

If we don’t begin to rapidly reduce fos­sil fuel pol­lu­tion, the impacts on California’s health­care sys­tem, our econ­omy, our food sup­ply and our com­mu­ni­ties will be orders of mag­ni­tude greater than what CARB has accounted for. Reg­u­la­tors can cor­rect this by align­ing with experts’ lat­est analy­sis, which cal­cu­lates the true social cost of car­bon at $50 per ton of pol­lu­tion emit­ted.

As a next step, reg­u­la­tors need to acknowl­edge it is far too late in the game to gam­ble our state’s future on unproven car­bon cap­ture tech­nolo­gies that may never mate­ri­al­ize. CARB’s draft scop­ing plan projects that Cal­i­for­nia will use 100 mil­lion met­ric tons (MMT) of direct air cap­ture in 2045. Glob­ally, only 0.01 MMT of annual direct air cap­ture is hap­pen­ing today. It is unre­al­is­tic to assume we can scale up this tech­nol­ogy so much overnight, and fool­ish to direct invest­ment to unproven exper­i­ments when afford­able nat­ural car­bon removal solu­tions like com­post­ing and tree-​​planting are read­ily avail­able now.

We have afford­able renew­able energy tech­nolo­gies avail­able today that not only cut car­bon emis­sions but also tackle our state’s air pol­lu­tion cri­sis. California’s scop­ing plan should mobi­lize a vast expan­sion of renew­able energy tech­nolo­gies. Instead, the cur­rent pro­posal calls for 10 gigawatts of new nat­ural gas gen­er­at­ing capac­ity — the equiv­a­lent of 33 large new gas plants.

There is still time for CARB and New­som to deliver a bold cli­mate blue­print that cen­ters equity and pub­lic health and focuses on a no-​​regrets approach of renew­able energy invest­ment. It’s California’s legacy and lives around the world that are at stake. We can­not afford to fall short.

Daniel Kam­men is a pro­fes­sor of sus­tain­abil­ity at UC Berke­ley. He is a for­mer coor­di­nat­ing author of the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC),  Kam­men in cur­rently serv­ing in the Biden-​​Harris Admin­is­tra­tion as Senior Advi­sor for Energy & Inno­va­tion at the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tional Devel­op­ment (USAID) 


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