Governor Brown Sets Ambitious Climate Agenda for California

Image by Flickr user Adrian Lam.

In his fourth inaugural address on January 5, Governor Jerry Brown gave climate hawks cause to celebrate the new year by proposing an ambitious energy policy agenda that will keep California at the forefront of fighting global warming for more than a decade. Brown called for 50 percent of California’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030 (up from a 33 percent goal by 2020). He also called for doubling the energy efficiency of existing buildings and reducing automobile dependency on oil and gas by 50 percent.

Wow! During his tenure so far, the governor has strongly supported the state’s sustained commitment to implementing and advancing the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act (a.k.a. AB 32) — and the suite of accompanying legislation, regulation and progams that work in concert with and implement it. These include things like the Renewable Portfolio Standard, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, vehicle efficiency and zero-emission vehicle standards, energy efficiency requirements, the California Solar Initiative, cap and trade, and SB 375 and its manifestations in Sustainable Communities Strategies like Plan Bay Area. Earlier this year, we asked how California would tackle climate change after achieving its 2020 goals, which it seems likely to well exceed — especially since implementation seems to be working well, without any of the dire economic consequences that naysayers and certain oil companies predicted. (Remember Prop 23?) With this year’s proposal, the governor is signaling a commitment to extend our multi-pronged framework for success at least another decade — if not beyond.

Carbon Output of California’s Economy

While California’s economy has grown in the last five years, the amount of carbon pollution per unit of economic output has declined. This indicates that our climate and energy policies are working well while not hindering economic growth. Source: Office of the Governor, Cal EPA, ARB, and others, First Update to the Climate Change Scoping Plan, May 2014, Figure ES-1, page ES-3

How hard will it be to achieve these goals? In 2014, the Governor’s Office and other agencies responsible for implementing AB 32 reported that the state was “well-positioned” to continue reductions beyond 2020. Let’s look at it by sector:

  1. Renewable energy. Last year, about 23 percent of California’s electricity was coming from renewable sources (existing law sets a goal of 33 percent by 2020). It will certainly be a big challenge to double this figure in 15 years, along with developing the infrastructure necessary to sustain it, such as additional transmission, energy storage and a smarter grid.
  2. Reducing petroleum use for transportation. Existing low-carbon fuel policy and vehicle efficiency standards are expected to reduce emissions from cars and trucks 30 percent from today’s levels by 2020. Some experts believe reaching the 50 percent goal would not even require new technology but simply continued implementation of what we’re already doing: reducing vehicle-miles traveled through better transit-oriented urban development, continued deployment of electric vehicles, and strengthening the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The governor is also a big proponent of high-speed rail, which should be at least partially built by 2030, to offset vehicle emissions.
  3. Energy efficiency. Building efficiency standards adopted by the California Energy Commission in 2013 will increase the efficiency of new buildings by 25 to 30 percent. Retrofits of existing buildings, and financing them, remains a huge challenge — even though many of them will be cost-effective. To this end, there may be an effort at the state level in the next few years to develop time-of-sale building retrofit requirements, perhaps similar to what San Francisco and Berkeley have in their Residential Energy Conservation Ordinances.

In its AB 32 progress report, the governor’s office recommended that the state establish mid-term targets to stay on track in the years between 2020 and 2050, the target for reducing green gas emissions to 80 percent below their 1990 levels. The governor’s new 50-50-50 goals for electricity, building energy and vehicle fuels by 2030 would seem to meet that need. But in at least two if not all three of these policy areas, as the governor declared in his inaugural address, reaching them may be a “tall order” requiring “enormous innovation, research and investment.”

Climate hawks were already celebrating the January 1 implementation of cap and trade for mobile fuels, which applies California’s carbon emissions limits to gas and diesel fuels (which are responsible for about 40 percent of statewide emissions). With gasoline prices so low due to an oil glut, the pennies-on-the-gallon additional cost was hardly felt. Now, with an ambitious policy agenda for the next 15 years and beyond set to keep the momentum going, it’s time to get to work.