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Policy
| 09/08/16

California raises bar with landmark climate bills

TCE

The California state legislature has approved a pair of climate change bills that ratchet up the state’s mitigation target to cut carbon pollution by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030—the most ambitious in North America.

The legislation is an update to the state’s now ten-year-old flagship climate law championed by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions back down to 1990 levels by 2020, a target the state is well on track to achieving.

At that time, implementation toward the target was left up to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the clean air agency first established in 1967. In 2012 the CARB launched a cap-and-trade scheme whereby a steadily ratcheting downward limit to GHGs was set across a number of economic sectors, and tradable carbon permits were distributed to businesses that then have to cut emissions or purchase permits from those with a surplus.

The legislature has also approved a series of supplementary laws that include a low-carbon fuel standard, a zero-emissions-vehicle mandate that requires manufacturers to produce a certain percentage of clean vehicles amongst their fleet, a renewable portfolio standard that requires electric companies to source 50 percent of their energy from renewables by 2050, and building, appliance efficiency standards.

Taken together, California’s climate actions have allowed the state’s economy and population to grow while emissions have declined, whether measured on per capita basis, per unit of GDP or in absolute terms.

The new bills set a target, but once again leave the details of how they will be met up to the CARB. However this time, they also give state lawmakers more direct control of agency. It is to hold public workshops in the coming months before developing a plan for approval next spring.

What makes the new legislation so ambitious is that the only other major jurisdiction in the world with a similar mitigation target is the EU, but Europe has been in the mitigation game for a lot longer than California, so the state’s reductions must be steeper. (Switzerland, which lies outside the EU, has a 50 percent on 1990 target by 2030). As Vox reported last week, the only jurisdictions that have achieved such a rapid decarbonisation were the electricity sectors of France and Sweden in the 1970s when over roughly a decade, they switched to nuclear power.

A 2015 paper from researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory described modelling work to see if a 40 percent target is feasible. They concluded that it is, but would require ambitious action across dozens of sectors, and some fairly challenging policy options, including a build-out of high-speed rail to displace much private vehicle use, elimination of natural gas for domestic and commercial heating, an expansion of nuclear capacity, substantial increase in energy storage, widespread adoption of carbon capture and storage (CCS), and large-scale conversion of pasture to forest.

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California has ratcheted up its mitigation target to cut carbon pollution by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030

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