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Climate Change

If the Whole U.S. Followed in California’s Footsteps

This is a great guest post by Rebecca Friendly of the Center for American Progress, via Climate Progress. Enjoy!

california state houseby Rebecca Friendly

California, a state that’s historically been at the cutting edge of environmental and climate policies, continues to take bold steps in order to address climate change.

Climate studies and projections indicate that California will be hit hard by climate change, losing a great deal of its snow pack (a vital source of freshwater), and experiencing at least one meter of sea level rise by 2100. With the most advanced climate plan of any state, California is taking these threats very seriously (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research and Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“).

What if the rest of the country were as motivated as California? The answer: we’d definitely be one of the leading countries in leading the fight against climate change.

California-based author Mark Hertsgaard recently wrote an eye-opening piece for Yale Environment 360 asking that question. He highlights the various mechanisms California has implemented, including aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals, vehicle emission standards, and renewable energy targets.

In fact, if the rest of the United States had done what California has over the past 40 years, the world might be well on the way to slowing climate change. For in that case, the U.S. today, like California, might be consuming the same amount of energy as it did 40 years ago….  What’s more, the international community might have had a better chance of reaching a deal at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, because the U.S. might have embraced rather than shunned the goal of 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050.

As we move through this vapid period in America’s national clean energy strategy, it’s important to remember what California has done in recent years.

Through bold and innovative policies, California state officials are working to reduce pollution, protect the health of residents, and stabilize climate change — all while attempting to transition to an economy where sustainability is profitable. Hertsgaard’s column shows that such an economy is already taking shape due to the bipartisan Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the continuity of climate policy under Gov. Brown.

The passage of AB 32 in 2006 signaled the state’s commitment to green policies and long-term progressive thinking over partisanship. It established the first-ever mandatory reporting guidelines for global warming pollution, and set a limit for carbon, requiring the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020 and cut them by 80 percent by 2050. To accomplish these goals, the state was to establish a price for carbon, a low-carbon fuel standard, create energy efficiency standards, and create a statewide renewable electricity standard of 33% by 2020.

This January, the California Air Resources Board approved a sweeping package of progressive automobile standards known as the California clean car rules. These policies are an important first step in the larger goal of bringing state emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020.  This package will increase the number of low-pollution and zero emission vehicles available to consumers by 15% by 2025. Half a million of these cars are expected to be fuel cell or electric powered.  This new package is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 52 million tons a year by 2025.

California utilities are also pushing forward to meet the statewide renewable electricity standard. While there are still a number of integration challenges that need to be dealt with, the state has maintained its leadership in solar deployment thanks to the Million Solar Roofs program and the installation of large-scale concentrating solar power plants.

In August of this year, California will also follow up on its AB 32 mandates by holding its first auction of emission allowances under its carbon cap-and-trade program. Under this program the allowable emissions for each individual sector will be capped at 90 percent of the previous year’s emissions. Corporations that don’t utilize all of their allotted emission allowances will be able to auction their remaining allowance to companies that go over their limit. Governor Jerry Brown projects that these auctions will earn over $500 million in extra revenue each year.

So what drives this holistic, unprecedented range of investments? Hertsgaard writes about the culture that contributes to such aggressive action in the state:

Matt Rodriquez, the state’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, said he believed it is partly because many Californians, including policymakers, came to the state in the first place “because of its natural beauty and resources” and thus want them protected. The continuity between the climate policies of governors Brown and Schwarzenegger illustrates how the environment is less of a partisan issue in California; Republican and Democratic politicians alike understand that voters value green policies more than party labels. “Even though there may be a variety of political viewpoints, we share the goal of preserving our agricultural land, our forest lands, maintaining a good quality of water, and preserving the California way of life,” explained Rodriquez.

Of course, climate change isn’t just a California issue. Even if the state continues on this path, the lack of action elsewhere will continue to make the problem worse. If we want to truly combat the problem, we need to follow California’s lead on a broader scale.

Rebecca Friendly is a special assistant in the California office of the Center for American Progress.

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