Study shows California can meet its climate goals

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently completed a study that shows California is well on the path to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and meeting its ambitious climate goals. The analysis found that regulations that have already been adopted have put California on track to reducing its emissions below the state’s targets all the way to the year 2026, while aggressive expansion of the existing policies will allow the state to meet and exceed its 2050 goal (see figure below).

To get to this conclusion, the LBNL study evaluated California’s total greenhouse gas emissions under three different policy scenarios to determine whether they would allow us to meet the near-term statewide emission reduction targets of a return to 1990 emission levels by 2020 and the long-term goal of a reduction in emissions of eighty percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Cumulative Emissions.JPG

Cumulative Emissions Matter 

The best way to evaluate the results of the LBNL study is to compare the cumulative emissions under each scenario to the cumulative emissions that would occur if we simply met the state’s goals in each year, since what matters from a climate perspective are the total emissions over time rather than the emissions in any particular year.

It’s a lot like a retirement account. The total amount you put away is a lot more important than the amount you put away in any particular year. And if you save a lot of money when you’re young, you can save less in later years and still end up with the total savings needed. Similarly, early and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can allow the state to bank emissions that count towards future year obligations.

The Three Scenarios

The first scenario evaluated by LBNL simply assumes implementation of existing regulations that are already in place. These regulations include:

  • the Pavley vehicle standards,
  • the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS),
  • the statewide emissions performance standard (SB 1368),
  • the 33% renewable portfolio standard (33% RPS),
  • the smart growth program (SB 375),
  • the once-through cooling phase-out,
  • and the zero-emission vehicle program (ZEV).

Based on the LBNL analysis, these existing regulations will reduce our emissions below the state’s targets all the way to 2023, while total cumulative emissions remain below the state’s targets all the way out to 2026.

The second scenario assumes that we meet all the emission reduction targets that have been adopted, but for which regulations have not yet been adopted. These targets include higher levels of biofuels, improvements in heavy-duty vehicle and building efficiency, expansion of clean distributed generation, increased water and waste reduction, and progress towards a phase-out of hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants. This scenario would result in emissions that remain below the annual targets until 2032, while cumulative emissions would remain below the state’s target all the way out to 2045.

The third scenario assumes aggressive expansion of existing climate policies, including increased reliance on renewables and biofuels, further improvements in vehicle efficiency, and further reductions in automobile dependence. This scenario would result in emissions that remain below the annual targets until 2041, while cumulative emissions remain below the state’s target beyond 2060.

In other words, aggressive expansion of existing policies will allow us to meet and exceed our ambitious emission reduction target for 2050. While cumulative emissions would exceed our goals sometime in the 2060’s, that gives us four to five decades to come up with new policies and technologies that will allow us to further reduce emissions. 

Expansion of Existing Policies Will Allow California to Exceed the 2050 Goal

What can we make of these findings? The LBNL analysis clearly demonstrates that California is on track to meeting our ambitious climate goals, not just in the near term, but over the long-term. Regulations that have already been adopted have put us on track to meet our 2020 emission goal, while aggressive expansion of existing policies will allow us to meet and exceed our 2050 goal. These results are conservative in that they fail to include additional savings from offsets, which have already been approved for compliance with the AB 32 cap and trade program, and future policies which can be expected to be available to help meet the 2050 goal.

It is important to emphasize that just doing a study is a lot easier than actually achieving our climate goals. We still have lots of work to do implementing these programs and building the new energy economy. But the LBNL analysis shows that we can achieve our goals and that we’re well on our way.

Now, every state faces different circumstances, but this study suggests that it isn’t as difficult to meet California’s climate targets as some would have you believe. If California can meet and exceed its ambitious climate goals, then surely other states and countries can as well.

About the Authors

Peter Miller

Senior Scientist, Energy & Transportation program

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