Picking Up Speed: Why California Climate Action Keeps Moving Ahead

April 30, 2015 | 6:26 am
Adrienne Alvord
Former Contributor

April 29, 2015 may not go down in history, but for those of us who care about taking meaningful climate action it was a very nice day indeed here in California.

First, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order that requires the state to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a move that fulfills a request made in a UCS-coordinated letter signed by 164 state scientists last year. Second, the State Senate moved two landmark bills forward that together would dramatically decarbonize the economy over the next 15-30 years. And the California grid operator tweeted that at 1:30 PM the state hit a new solar peak – 6,038 MW. As our colleague Adam Browning of Vote Solar remarked, “That’s the world’s 7th largest economy running along just fine on what used to be considered a hippie pipe dream.”

Nothing succeeds like success

Many have asked me why California keeps driving forward on climate action at a time when any comprehensive movement at the federal level seems stalled (notwithstanding EPA’s Clean Power Plan and some great work on transportation emissions.) There are a lot of very un-scientific ideas out there about why California is “so different”, but the truth is pretty prosaic- it’s because of experience. California went down the low-carbon road in the first place in large part because folks like the policies that also happen to lower greenhouse gas emissions: reducing pollutants from vehicle tailpipes and smokestacks, energy efficiency measures that save people money, and increased energy independence from clean, renewable electricity sources. So starting with a pioneering measure to reduce car tailpipe ghgs in 2002 and hitting stride with an economy wide cap to lower emissions in 2006 (known as AB 32) California has steadily accelerated investment in these and other technologies, practices, and policies that reduce emissions, and instituted a carbon pricing mechanism to further incentivize innovation and investment. Along the way we’ve found that this all not only helps with public health and the environment, it’s also a job-creator and investment magnet.

In short, the reason California keeps cruising along to a low-carbon future is simple- this stuff works great!

First mover benefits

UC Berkeley energy professor Dan Kammen and others have argued persuasively that California has profited by being a climate leader, attracting 40 percent of clean tech private investment. An estimated $27 billion of venture capital and other financing has flowed into California clean technology companies since 2006 – in part because policies like AB 32 are driving demand for renewable energy and energy efficiency- and California now has the largest advanced energy industry in the United States, with 500,000 workers across 40,000 companies in 2015. And the state is working on new ways to expand the benefits of these actions. One of the key state laws that was developed in the wake of AB 32 requires that at least a quarter of the money raised through the law’s carbon pricing system be invested in low-income communities that suffer heavy pollution burdens, thus providing crucial health and community investment co-benefits.

In addition to the Governor’s target announced today (which becomes state policy but does not have the force of law) two bills were voted out of a key policy committee in the State Senate that would do even more. SB 32 (Pavley) would create a comprehensive statutory target of 80 percent reductions by 2050, and SB 350 (De León/Leno) would increase renewable energy use to 50 percent, reduce oil consumption by half – virtually the state-level codification of UCS’s Half the Oil plan- and increase energy efficiency by 50 percent by 2030. These are all very ambitious- some might say aggressive- targets and not all questions have been answered about how we can get there and at what cost. However, several studies have investigated possible pathways to get to these targets, and most have concluded we can succeed wholly or substantially with technologies and policies we are already deploying. In fact, Kammen noted in written testimony on SB 32 that “a number of the low-carbon 2050 pathways are less costly than what electricity is forecast to cost without a climate target.”

Of course, there are reasons we should proceed with caution- no worthwhile journey is without a few bumps and maybe a detour or two. But any setbacks the state may have are lessons that need to be learned and can benefit the nation and the world as the journey to a low-carbon future picks up momentum. The compelling science that put us on this road is clearer than ever. California is picking up speed, and so far we are having a great ride. As science is showing more conclusively all the time, the alternative road is pretty frightening. With California showing how good the journey can be, it seems foolish not to follow.