Even More Than 100% Clean: California’s Audacious Net-Zero Carbon Challenge

September 14, 2018 | 9:52 am
Adrienne Alvord
Former Contributor

At the end of a summer that was marked by dramatically destructive natural disasters, including massive fires throughout the entire western U.S., killer heat waves, fires, and floods in Asia and Europe, and now Hurricane Florence landing on the Carolinas, California is offering a ray of hope for a planet that is facing increasingly terrible impacts from global warming.  Governor Jerry Brown has convened an international climate summit in San Francisco that demonstrates the huge number of jurisdictions both nationally and from around the world, in addition to businesses and industries, religious groups, climate justice advocates, and a lot of scientists, among many others, who are working hard for climate action.

Brown began the week by demonstrating that California is not resting on its impressive climate action laurels but significantly increasing its commitment to reducing emissions. I was lucky enough to attend the ceremony where Governor Brown signed SB 100, a bill that had taken its legislative author, State Senator Kevin de León (whose legislative tenure has been distinguished by successfully championing historic clean energy and climate action), a grueling two years to pass the state legislature.  SB 100 commits California to 60% renewable energy by 2030 (up from the current 50% requirement) and a goal of fully 100% clean electricity by 2045.  While we have much work to do to achieve this goal, we are now committed to a path toward a fully decarbonized electricity system.  I was proud to represent UCS’s incredible staff who made uniquely valuable contributions to this coalition effort to get the bill passed.

In a remarkable piece by NPR, UCS’s  energy analyst Laura Wisland talked about the many challenges that remain for California to achieve this goal, but it is clearly something we can do.  Thanks to over 15 years of previous renewable electricity and energy efficiency policies, electricity emissions now account for a relatively low 16% of California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory. But the last emissions reductions will be the hardest to achieve. We will need to grapple with how to lower the vast amount of natural gas used to generate electricity and make room for cleaner, carbon-free sources of energy.  We also have a big challenge ahead to grapple with transportation and industrial emissions to meet ambitious state 2030  GHG reduction limits.  But in the last twelve years California has shown that it can succeed- ahead of schedule- in meeting carbon reduction goals while growing the state economy from the eighth to the fifth largest in the world, a feat that belies alarmists who say that reducing emissions will damage the  economy.

A surprise announcement of huge ambition

Coming at the end of Governor Brown’s remarkable 8-year tenure, the bill signing ceremony this week contained a surprise. With no fanfare or previous signaling of his intentions, Governor Brown included an additional action in the bill signing–a new executive order, B-55-18, that creates an economy-wide carbon neutrality goal for California by 2045.  He is directing the state to strive for net zero carbon emissions in less than 30 years. This must be done using a combination of zero-emission technologies to power the electric grid, transportation, homes, buildings and industries,  with other practices and technologies that sequester carbon, or take it out of the atmosphere.

This will require an extraordinary effort that will affect every Californian. The state will not only have to meet its ambitious new 100% clean electricity goal on top of its very ambitious 2030 statewide GHG reduction limit, but also virtually halt nearly all emissions in a mere 15 years after that, by 2045. Let’s take a moment to appreciate that goal.

For California to achieve net zero carbon emissions, it will require a staggering change to some of the basic elements driving our economy. California will need to eliminate the single biggest tranche of carbon emissions: those from the vehicles that transport people and goods across throughout the state.  This means electric vehicles powered by our clean electric grid for nearly everyone. It will require carbon-free fuels for industrial processes, hugely advanced efficiency in buildings and appliances, and likely the development of truly reliable forms of storing carbon in plants, soils, and geographic formations. As yet, no one has developed a real plan for how we could get to net zero emissions, and to do this successfully is a very tall order. David Roberts at Vox wrote this early analysis of the ins and outs of what could happen, including a warning that implementing net zero could include measures and policies that could be more symbolic than substantive.

But here’s the thing. Once the Governor of the nation’s most populous state, a serious and credible leader with a remarkably successful tenure over eight years, has made carbon neutrality the goal, then a lot of people may start take it seriously enough to figure out how to meet it. What Brown has done is to challenge us to think about what it would really take to get carbon emissions down fast enough and thoroughly enough to reduce the risks we are seeing multiply so rapidly, and help ensure a viable future, within three decades.  It is a huge undertaking.

A vision for the future, both audacious and necessary

A few cynics may argue that this is a non-binding announcement to help the Governor’s visibility for his San Francisco Global Climate Action Summit that is happening this week, but I believe that this order could have tremendous value. Executive Orders in California are part of state policy, even if they do not have the force of law. And whatever mix of reasons Brown had for doing this, he is sending a strong science-based message to the world –namely, that we need to reduce global warming pollution much further and faster than we previously thought to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. It will be up to the next governor and the legislature to carry out Brown’s order. Luckily, California has good examples of turning Executive Orders into law.

So here is my unsolicited advice to California’s next Governor and the Legislature starting in 2019: 1) do the hard work of ensuring we get  to 100% clean energy by 2045 ; 2) start now on fully implementing  new regulations and laws that will rapidly take the carbon out of our transportation and industrial sectors to ensure we meet our 2030 goals to reduce ghgs to 40% below 1990 levels; 3) get our best minds in science and technology to work together to produce an economically sound blueprint that would get us to net zero by 2045; and 4) start to implement the next generation of policies that would get us to net zero.

California has shown that a world-class economy can reduce its carbon emissions rapidly while growing its economy. While we can’t guarantee that further decarbonization will go as smoothly, the on-going, accelerating, costly, and deadly destabilization of our climate is much too urgent a matter to approach timidly because of our fears. We owe a great deal to the leadership of people like State Senator Kevin De León and Governor Jerry Brown who have shown what is possible.  Neither will be serving as leaders in Sacramento after this year. It is now up to us to take their bold leadership and ensure that we succeed in making their visions real, and help provide examples and lessons to the nation and the world on how it can be done.