Environment and Economy Working Hand-in-Hand

California continues to disprove the Trump Administration’s rant that you can’t have a healthy environment and economy at the same time. We prove over and over again that you can grow jobs while protecting the environment as well as show how energy efficiency and renewable energy can provide cleaner air with a healthier environment for all Californians.

Photograph by Lexey Swall

The latest evidence comes in the 9th edition of the California Green Innovation Index, produced by the independent, nonpartisan Next 10 organization. The report shows that from 2006 to 2015, California's GDP (gross domestic product) grew by almost $5,000 per person, about twice the rate of the rest of the country. In addition, the state has now become the most energy-productive major economy in the world, all while reducing its carbon-intensity by 4.5 percent.

During that same period, per capita greenhouse gas emissions fell by 12 percent and the state produced about twice the economic activity per unit of energy consumed as the rest of the country. In addition, job growth outpaced total U.S. employment gains by 27 percent and each California fossil fuel job is outnumbered by 8.5 jobs in renewable generation. What's more, the California renewable energy construction industry is providing access to good jobs for disadvantaged workers.  

Always Striving for More

While this is great news, we still have much work to do.


The Innovation Index notes that while overall emissions fell, those reductions were partially offset by increased pollution in the transportation sector. Despite the steady improvements in fuel efficiency of new cars and truck models, transportation-related emissions rose by 2.7 percent in 2015, likely due to a stronger state economy, lower gas prices, and the reality that workers must make longer work commutes from distant suburbs where housing is more affordable. Continued implementation of strong clean car standards will be critical to reversing this trend. Under current standards, new vehicles produced in 2025 will emit about half as much climate pollution and need only about half as much gasoline per mile traveled compared to 2010.

The Index notes that zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), together with plug-in electric hybrids, could dramatically reduce both climate and smog-forming pollution. While nearly half of all ZEVs purchased in the United States are being bought in California, they only comprised 5 percent of total new vehicle registrations in 2015.

Also highlighted by the Index: there aren’t enough public electric vehicle (EV) charging stations to go around. There is still only one station for every 20 EVs on the road, putting the state near the bottom (48th) in terms of charging accessibility. That gap is now starting to be filled, thanks to SB 350’s directive that requires California investor-owned utilities to make proposals that would bolster transportation electrification, including making infrastructure investments for charging access in multi-dwelling units and low-income communities.

Climate and Air Quality

The legislature recently passed a two-bill air quality and climate package that extends the state’s cap-and-trade program to 2030, while mandating improved air quality in areas where traffic and industrial pollution are damaging lives. Implementing an extended cap-and-trade through 2030 will help the state reduce statewide emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The law also continues the important requirement to invest proceeds from pollution pricing in the state’s lower income communities. As a result of those investments, more than $4.5 billion in private money has been allocated to those areas—essentially $5 leveraged for every dollar invested.

Carbon-free power

In addition, if we want to get to 100 percent greenhouse gas free electricity, we need a smarter way of managing electricity in the west. 

Fully integrating the western grid would reduce costs and improve reliability for electricity customers across California and West, use our electricity more efficiently, and cut millions of tons of pollution. Important low-income solar access bills also ensure that underserved residents are provided opportunities to have clean energy whether they live in single-family or multi-family residences. While the needed legislation to integrate the western grid and push for 100 percent greenhouse gas-free electricity did not move forward this year, next year will offer another opportunity to pick up where we left off.

Energy Efficiency

State energy agencies are also busy implementing solutions to comply with SB 350 to double efficiency savings, reach 50 percent renewable energy generating our electricity by 2030, and ensure lower greenhouse gas emission resources are used to provide energy to Californians. The agencies are also working to implement the requirements of AB 802 to make sure energy efficiency programs capture all savings opportunities, as well implement a statewide benchmarking program, so owners of large buildings can understand how much energy they buy and what actions can lower usage to save them money. In addition, the state is working to improve efficiency for low-income residents of multi-family buildings.

Going for Gold

While progress stalls in Washington, D.C., California’s actions and state climate policies keep the strong momentum toward shifting to a clean energy economy that benefits the environment as well as the economy. By working with allies and regions in partnership, California and other local, regional, and state efforts can move the needle toward mitigating damaging climate pollution while providing the added benefits of lower energy bills, cleaner air, and a productive economy. 

About the Authors

Lara Ettenson

Western Director, Planning and Operations, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.