California Climate Year In Review: A Tale Of Tremendous Progress

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2015 Energy Developments

Were Charles Dickens to survey the 2015 California climate and energy landscape this holiday season, he might conclude it was the best of times: California passed the most aggressive clean energy targets in the world, established the most ambitious carbon reduction target in North America, divested its public pension funds from coal, and made unprecedented commitments to bring clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

Yet it was also the worst of times: a massive leak at SoCalGas's Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility remains unsealed (pumping huge amounts of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere and sickening many local residents), the oil industry flexed its corruptive influence in stripping the petroleum reduction goal out of Senate Bill 350 (2015's sweeping clean energy bill by De León and Leno), and 2015 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record.

So what's a less equivocal contemporary reviewer to do? While enormous challenges undeniably remain, I think history will judge the tale of 2015 to be one of tremendous progress for California's climate initiatives - in particular, as a year in which our ambition began to take hold on a national and global scale.

Lead by Example...

Here at home, California policymakers raised the bar on a number of fronts (inspired of course by festive carols):

  • He Came A-Wassailing: Governor Brown used his January inaugural address to announce a series of sweeping climate goals (or "pillars") to set the table for the year ahead. Chief among them were to (1) increase to 50 percent the state's share of renewable electricity; (2) double the energy efficiency savings in existing buildings; and (3) cut petroleum consumption in half; all by 2030. Not long after, the Legislature took up the challenge to put these goals into law, led by Senate Pro Tem Kevin De León. While the oil industry celebrated a largely pyrrhic victory when the petroleum reduction goal was removed from the bill (the state's legal authority and Californians' support for ratcheting down the policies already reducing our petroleum dependence remains firmly intact), when the dust had settled in September, California had enacted the most aggressive combined clean energy targets in the world. And with all the focus on the petroleum reduction goal, the fossil fuel lobby overlooked key provisions in the bill that direct the state's utilities to build electric vehicle charging infrastructure capable of supporting one million EVs within the next 10 years (or as my colleague put it, "to eat the oil industry's lunch").
  • All I Want For Christmas is My (Auction Proceeds). California's economy-wide cap-and-trade program completed its first compliance period with a near-perfect compliance rate (99.8%). Having doubled in size to accommodate the addition of transportation fuels and natural gas to the emissions limits requiring pollution permits this year, the program is on solid footing as it prepares to expand to accommodate additional trading partners (next up: Ontario and Manitoba) and achieve greater reductions (next up: extending beyond 2020). Auctioning state-owned pollution allowances has now generated $3.5 billion that by law must finance investments in emission reduction projects, particularly in California's communities hardest hit by air pollution. NRDC partnered with the Greenlining Institute to tell the stories of the many lives changed for the better by California's clean energy programs at UpliftCA.org (including Norma Alvarado, pictured below, who left a minimum-wage job at McDonald's to start an apprenticeship program with the Fresno Ironworkers Union Local 155 installing solar in the Central Valley).

  • Won't You Guide Our (State) Tonight. In April, Governor Brown layered a target on top of his five pillars - an executive order establishing a statewide limit on carbon pollution of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. That order puts California halfway toward achieving its 2050 commitment to reduce emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels, in line with the science-driven consensus of the reductions required from industrial nations to avoid the most catastrophic risks of climate change. Recognizing this sleigh needed more reindeer, California then proceeded to enlist more than 123 U.S. and international jurisdictions to commit to the same level of reductions by 2050 in the "Under2MOU" - the signatories of which now represent more than 720 million people and a quarter of the global economy.

...And Carry a Big Stick Abroad

But perhaps most significantly, 2015 marked a turning point for when California's efforts began to find real traction on the national and global stage. In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency completed the Clean Power Plan in August to set the first limits on carbon pollution from our nation's power fleet, the largest source of domestic carbon emissions. While the Republican Scrooge caucus in Congress continues its callous and reckless attempts to erect political and legal hurdles to implementation, nearly every state has started working on its own plan to comply. President Obama followed the Plan's release by rejecting - once and for all - the Keystone XL pipeline. And just last week the Department of Energy adopted energy efficiency standards for commercial rooftop air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces that together will save more energy and avoid more pollution than any other rule in the agency's history.

With the United States firmly in the game, the stage was set for a global accord at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris that would for the first time include reduction commitments from all of the world's major emitters. It did not disappoint: while herculean efforts lie ahead to meet the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the December 2015 Agreement puts the world on a path to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, commits countries to robust transparency requirements, and ensures the initial reduction pledges will be updated every five years.

Despite not having an official seat at the table, California can take pride in its influence on the final outcome. Beyond being in the vanguard of the (growing) groundswell of subnational actors demanding climate action, state officials report California's longstanding partnership with China to share technical expertise and lessons learned in developing emissions inventories and monitoring systems played an integral part in overcoming China's initial reticence to the Agreement's transparency and review provisions.

The Year Ahead

While California has never been short on vision, actual results derive from the comparatively unglamorous processes of implementation, oversight, and enforcement. With lofty new goals in law, our attention must turn to hunkering down at California's regulatory agencies to iron out how to get there, including:

  • Expediting review and approval of the investor-owned utilities' electric vehicle charging infrastructure applications at the California Public Utilities Commission;
  • Finalizing the short-lived climate pollutant reduction strategy teed up by Senate Bill 605 (Lara) (and cementing the reduction targets for each of those pollutants - methane, black carbon, and HFCs - in follow up legislation recently announced by Senator Lara);
  • Updating California's Scoping Plan to outline the strategies and investments required to hit the new 2030 statewide emissions reduction target;
  • Developing California's Clean Power Plan implementation plan;
  • Laying the foundation for extending the cap-and-trade program beyond 2020;
  • And much, much more.

But one significant new target remains in limbo: codifying the 2030 statewide greenhouse gas reduction limit announced by Governor Brown last April, which is the aim of SB 32 (Pavley). Executive orders and administrations come and go, but the certainty afforded by statute - like the 2020 limit in AB 32, the state's groundbreaking Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 - will be critical for California to build on the successes of 2015.

Not the Same (Old) Lang Syne?

Finally, a note of optimism for the year to come. For more than a decade, climate change and clean energy policy in the U.S. has inexplicably been a highly partisan issue. But a line from a NY Times story on San Diego's commitment to 100 percent renewable energy within 20 years offers some hope that that may yet begin to fray. San Diego's mayor, Kevin Faulconer, is a Republican. Yet, according to the piece, "he sold the plan to a conservative business base in part by saying that transforming the electric grid would drive the economy and create jobs."

"It's not a partisan issue at all," he said. "It's the right thing to do."

As more and more states realize the potential and benefits of moving to clean energy, let's hope that tune catches on.

About the Authors

Alex Jackson

Legal Director, California Climate Project, Energy & Transportation program

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