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How Biden’s new U.S. climate target compares with those of California and world

White wind turbines stand amid a mountainous landscape
California has looked to renewable energy, including from wind farms such as this one in the Tehachapi Mountains, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For years, California has been more ambitious than the United States in fighting climate change. But now that President Biden has proposed slashing the nation’s planet-warming emissions in half by 2030, the roles seem to have flipped.

The administration’s new U.S. climate goal is slightly more aggressive than California’s, according to two independent analyses, and is one of the most ambitious emissions targets in the world.

But it’s unclear yet whether the administration’s pledge will require California to do more to cut its pollution, in part because of differences in how the state and federal government track emissions, researchers and state officials said.

The target to reduce U.S. emissions 50 to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030 is among the “most ambitious 2030 commitments when it comes to economy-wide emission reductions below historical levels,” according to an analysis by the research firm Rhodium Group.

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Those ambitions fall behind only the United Kingdom, and are similar to what the European Union has pledged to reduce from 2005 levels, according to the analysis. The Biden administration’s target goes well beyond the commitments of Canada, Japan, Iceland, Norway and Australia..

In comparison, “California’s target of 40% below 1990 levels translates into about 47% below 2005 levels by 2030,” said Kate Larsen, who authored the Rhodium Group analysis.

Jason Barbose, a senior policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, came to similar conclusions. He said Biden’s proposed nationwide target “is somewhat more ambitious than California’s emissions limit,” which seeks a 40% cut below 1990 levels by 2030.

If California were to match the Biden administration’s goal to cut pollution at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, it “would be roughly equivalent” to a 44% reduction over 1990 levels. That’s 4% greater than California’s existing target.

State air quality officials said California’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 equates to about 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, compared with 241.5 million metric tons if the state had a target of cutting emissions 50% below 2005 levels.

However, it’s hard to say whether the Biden administration’s new climate target would actually require the state to make steeper or swifter emissions cuts, state officials said.

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Differences in how the state and federal government account for emissions mean “you cannot do an apples-to-apples comparison,” said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

California’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 covers only emissions from fossil energy and industry, while the federal government accounts for additional sectors including land use, forests and farmland.

It’s also hard to tell whether Biden’s goal would require California to do more because it’s a broad nationwide target and does not have state-specific contributions.

“There is a lot of opportunity for cheap greenhouse gas reductions outside of California,” Clegern said. “So, without knowing if the Biden administration will want to give states their own levels of contribution to achieving the … target, we cannot say at this time if that means more would be required of California.”

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California plans to launch two climate-tracking satellites into orbit in 2023 to search for ‘super-emitters’ of planet-warming pollution.

Larsen, of Rhodium Group, agreed that it’s too early to say if the new Biden administration target would require California to cut more pollution than it was already planning to do.

She said it “would make no specific demands on states to do more. It’s a nationwide goal with policies yet to be determined.”

Barbose, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said California’s 2030 climate goal was already weaker than other jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, the European Union and the United Kingdom.

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“California’s goals are not keeping up with the rest of the world and, quite frankly, are not keeping up with the science,” Barbose said. “By any reasonable calculation California (and the United States) has already blown through our share of the global carbon budget — the carbon we can emit and keep global temps below critical thresholds — and therefore we should commit to cutting emissions as quickly as possible.”

Times staff writer Anna Phillips contributed to this report.


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