Economy Up, Emissions Down: California Debunks Trump (Again)

New numbers from California show the state added jobs and expanded its economy while cutting greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent between 2004 and 2015. The data from the state's Air Resources Board debunks yet again the tired argument that acting on climate change means sacrificing economic growth.

In withdrawing from the landmark Paris climate agreement June 1, President Trump tried to set up a false conflict between the "well-being of American citizens" and the "economic burden" of honoring commitments to reduce emissions. Yet California is hardly hurting as it leads the way on climate progress. Enacting climate-friendly policies has proven to be an economic asset to California, one that delivers cleaner air, jobs, and opportunity.

While there is much to cheer, the new numbers also underscore just how much California will need to pick up the pace to make good on its 2030 reduction target and show the way forward on a path to climate stability.

Hand in Hand

The sixth-largest economy in the world is generating more economic activity with less carbon pollution, according to the 2015 greenhouse gas inventory released by ARB last week. The amount of greenhouse gases associated with producing a million dollars’ worth of state products fell 33 percent from the peak of 2001 to 2015. Gross domestic product, meanwhile, rose 37 percent in the same period.

A combination of forward-thinking policies, including the state's renewable portfolio standard, cap-and-trade program, energy efficiency measures, and Low Carbon Fuel Standard, are helping California meet its climate goals. Between 2014 and 2015, emissions fell across most economic sectors by a total of 1.5 million metric tons, the equivalent of avoiding the emissions from 300,000 cars for a year.

While modest relative to the state’s annual emissions output, the progress is more impressive considering that California was suffering its fourth year of punishing drought in 2015, which reduced supplies of emissions-free hydropower to a trickle (less than 6 percent of in-state generation, compared to more than 18 percent during California’s last wet year in 2011). The precipitous decline in hydropower offset about half of the explosive growth in renewable energy generation over the same period. Following a record wet winter, however, and even more gains in renewable energy and energy efficiency, the 2017 inventory is poised to post a banner decline in emissions from California’s power generation sector.

At the same time, California led the nation in job creation in 2016 for the third year in a row, and in the past seven years has added 2.3 million jobs, cut unemployment in half, and eliminated a $27 billion budget deficit. As Matthew Winkler at Bloomberg notes, the state's burgeoning clean energy sector is driving this story, supporting more than half a million jobs, from solar installers to energy efficiency workers.

California and other states will continue this momentum, regardless of Trump's abandonment of climate leadership at the federal level. Along with New York, Washington, Puerto Rico and 10 other states, it is standing by the Paris agreement via the U.S. Climate Alliance. And the California Senate recently passed SB 100, which calls for 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from zero carbon sources by 2045.

Steeper Reductions Ahead

These moves signal the recognition that there's much more to be done. California's transportation sector—its largest source of greenhouse gas emissions—saw a slight uptick in emissions in 2015 because of increased fuel consumption, driven in part by plunging gas prices. That underscores the need to extend and strengthen the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which already has helped avoid the consumption of 8.5 billion gallons of petroleum, and to speed the adoption of electric vehicles. The state's clean cars program is an indispensable tool to hold automakers accountable for offering less polluting and more efficient vehicles with each model year, even as the Trump administration pumps the brakes.

Most urgently, lawmakers need to affirm California’s economy-wide cap on emissions beyond 2020. As the inventory numbers reinforce, California’s climate policies must account for exogenous factors such as drought and global crude oil prices that have a significant impact on the state’s emissions profile. Thankfully, California’s cap-and-trade program is designed to do just that. Features such as linking to other programs, allowance banking, and multiyear compliance periods smooth out yearly fluctuations in weather patterns, fuel prices, and other variables that affect short-term emissions trends, while providing long-term certainty that California’s carbon pollution will steadily decline.

California's climate leadership is ultimately driven by the same concern for the well-being of its citizens that the Trump administration ignores with every rollback of environmental protections. By building its economy on a foundation that fosters greater efficiency and cleaner air, the state is paving the way toward a healthier future that even the most ardent espousers of alternative facts can’t deny.