For most people who work on climate change policy, targets have been aspirational, something we’re working towards. California has changed all that by announcing that its first key climate policy milestone is now in our rear-view mirror, more than three years early. Good news like this deserves a few more minutes in the spotlight:
It was a ground-breaking commitment for a major economy like California to agree to binding limits on carbon pollution. As it turns out, we reduced carbon emissions faster than we thought was possible.
This is unambiguously a good thing and cause for celebration.
We should absolutely enjoy the accomplishment, but also keep in mind that we have a long way to go. California has set a legal target of reducing emissions 40% from this level by 2030, as well as an Executive Order calling for 80% reductions by 2050; current science indicates we should go much farther and much faster. Basically all industrialized economies need to at least hit, and probably exceed, that 2050 number to have a hope of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.
Achieving our first target is a significant and laudable goal, nonetheless! Let’s unpack the achievement a bit, as well as what we should expect from California’s climate change policy over the next decade.
The Big Climate Success Story: Renewable Electricity
We achieved the 1990 goal largely by decarbonizing electricity. The state’s ambitious Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) which required utilities to obtain increasing fractions of their supply from renewable sources deserves most of the credit. The RPS created an initial market which supported large investments into R&D as well as renewable generation. Our RPS helped drive the rapid decline in wind and solar prices. Wind and solar are now cheap enough to out-compete fossil fuels on the basis of fundamental costs, even in states which do not provide the same level of support as California.
We are clearly not done with the electrical sector, but clearly are on the right trajectory. The downside of early success is that we can’t keep meeting economy-wide targets by decarbonizing electricity, there’s just not enough carbon left in that sector. We need to squeeze out the last carbon that remains, partly by shifting the times of electrical load to match renewable energy supply. Cheap batteries will make this much easier, by allowing wind and mid-day solar – some of which is often wasted due to lack of demand – to be stored for use when needed. We’ll get there.
If Senate Bill 100, currently before the California legislature, passes, then we’ll get there no later than 2045. A zero-emitting grid is probably achievable without assuming further developments in technology. A 90-95% zero-emitting grid certainly is. Cheap, zero-emitting, dispatchable generation (nuclear? combustion with CCS?) or seasonal energy storage (hydrogen? molten salt?) is the last piece needed to render fossil fueled electricity totally obsolete.
Slower Progress in Industrial Sectors
In the industrial sector, the previous decade has been about making the obvious investments into energy efficiency and the next decade is going to be all about reducing high warming impact gases, like methane and some refrigerants. As the graph above shows, a significant improvement from cogeneration, using industrial combustion sources to generate both heat and electricity instead of just heat, produced much of the gains to offset the effects of economic growth. Policies like the Self-Generation Incentive Program have encouraged more co-generation, which doesn’t require advanced technology, just upgrading old single-purpose boilers to the most efficient current commercial designs; a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem.
We’re going to need advanced technology for the future, however. Luckily, innovation continued while we were cleaning up the obvious inefficiencies. In essence, as we were picking the low-hanging fruit, we were also building better ladders, which brings the next tier of reductions into reach. Carbon-neutral or negative cement will be a big win for the climate, as will carbon capture and sequestration for refineries and ethanol production. We need to move these technologies out of the lab and into commercial-scale projects.
Extending cap-and-trade through AB 398 and 617 was an absolutely critical step, which we must capitalize on by setting program rules to limit the potential over-supply of permits. The price signal is the best opportunity to push the next wave of efficiency in the industrial sector.
Transportation: The Next Big Mountain to Climb
People are driving more and the progress from federal fuel economy standards isn’t enough to offset that, even if they survive the efforts of Trump, Wheeler and the ghost of Scott Pruitt to eviscerate them.
California is making massive investments in electric vehicles (EVs) which will be the way of the future, though we’re way behind China in that respect. Governor Brown set a target of 5 million EVs by 2030, which is not an easy thing, but well within reach. Still, with a fleet of 25+ million passenger vehicles and a few million more heavy-duty ones, hitting that target does not, by itself, do enough to hit our 2030 GHG target or get on a trajectory towards long-term decarbonization.
We’re going to need a portfolio of solutions in transportation. Job #1 is to make the transition to electricity fast and smooth. Meanwhile, we must shift urban planning to support walking, biking and transit as attractive alternatives to driving. California needs to keep pushing fuel economy standards as much as possible, by fighting Trump’s short-sighted attempts to weaken current standards and, if necessary, assert the authority granted to it by the Clean Air Act to set its own standards, which other states have indicated they would follow. Biofuels will play an important near-term role, as long as we are careful about sustainability and land conversion as we deploy them. Research that NextGen, Ceres and the Union of Concerned Scientists have collaborated on over the last few years lays out a course for sustainable transportation which embraces California’s Clean Fuel Future and shows the path to using only Half the Oil.
Change goes deeper than just fossil fuels
Agricultural emissions have stayed pretty steady since 2006. Increasing emissions from livestock, mainly dairies, have been largely offset by reduced emissions from crops. Some of these reductions are due to more efficient use of fertilizer and water, which is a good thing, some are due to drought-driven production cuts, which isn’t. Regenerative agriculture, which improves soil health and sequesters carbon, will need to become the industry norm, if we’re going to keep producing without driving up emissions.
There are big changes afoot in the livestock sector. The Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Plan requires significant reductions in methane emissions, which will largely be accomplished through better manure management. We may also be able to trim enteric fermentation (a polite term for the gas passed by animals directly) through improved feeds and supplements.
California has the developed the tools need and made sound plans to drive down agricultural emissions without harming the competitiveness of our producers. We are not as far along where our forests are concerned. This is the biggest, and frankly the scariest remaining source of emissions. Over the years, forests have absorbed more carbon than they emit in California, but current evidence indicates that is probably no longer the case. Drought, fire and pests – for which climate change plays a massive role – are huge problem.
The recent Forest Carbon Plan is a good first step, but it’s going to take resources and attention to do it right. Everyone in CA who drinks water and breathes air has a stake in forest health. It’s a complex problem in which we simply don’t understand the systems in enough detail, to make highly accurate predictions about the long-term result of our proposed actions. To some extent, the problem is that we can’t do a long term experiment when we live in the only petri dish. We may need to accept that our forest management practices will be based on uncertain science and must respond rapidly to new evidence.
California’s Lesson to the World
We have proved that industrial economies can reduce emissions without sacrificing growth. Our economy has grown over the last decade, faster than national average and fast enough to move up the global GDP leaderboard. In the race between advancement of clean tech and costs of deep carbon cuts, clean tech is winning. We can’t take for granted that this will continue forever, but we can help make sure it does with good policy.
California’s strong and comprehensive approach to climate policy is clearly the best model for others to follow. It’s not perfect, or even so good that we can take our foot off the gas pedal… er… EV accelerator, but it’s pretty damn good. Everyone, from the scientists who identified the problems, to the political leaders who first pushed the solutions, to the regulators, businesspeople and citizens who live it every day, deserve a share of credit for this success. We also must take the responsibility to keep moving forward.
California can do this. We can even get rich in the process. Every step we take makes the world better for us and for generations to follow.