Editorial: Surprise! California cracked down on carbon and its economy is still booming

Wind turbines in Palm Springs, Calif.
(Sandy Huffaker / Associated Press)

The predictions were dire in 2006 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill audaciously committing the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020 in order to combat global warming.

Assembly Bill 32 would be a “job killer,” the state Chamber of Commerce declared. Businesses would flee the state and new investments in California would wither. The crackdown on carbon would hinder energy production and cause rolling blackouts. It would “practically shut the state down,” one economist warned.

Surprise! California didn’t shut down. The state isn’t plagued with energy shortages and blackouts; in fact, California now produces so much solar power that the state has occasionally paid other states to take its surplus electricity. Businesses didn’t flee, and investors are still putting their money to work in the state, which now has the world’s fifth-largest economy.


And those AB 32 targets that seemed so daunting in 2006? Turns out, California met them in 2016 — four years ahead of the deadline. That’s according to the most recent tally of greenhouse gas emissions published this week by the California Air Resources Board.

Businesses didn’t flee, and investors are still putting their money to work in the state, which now has the world’s fifth-largest economy.

AB 32 required the state to cut emissions to 1990 levels — 431 million metric tons — by 2020. In 2016, the state emitted 429 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. The reduction is the rough equivalent of taking 12 million cars off the road.

This is a huge accomplishment for California. State leaders took an enormous risk by enacting one of the world’s most aggressive laws to slash greenhouse gases. They did it despite fierce opposition from industry groups (which even floated a ballot initiative, 2010’s Proposition 23, to suspend the law; voters rejected it soundly) and the George W. Bush administration, which tried to block California and other states from regulating the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

California’s ability to reach its AB 32 target without major strife or economic sacrifice, and to do so ahead of schedule, should be a powerful rebuttal to naysayers. It’s a particularly useful lesson for the Trump administration, which contends that cutting carbon will hurt the nation’s industries and economy.

The biggest reduction in California’s greenhouse gas emissions came from energy companies, aided by the switch from coal- and natural-gas-fueled power plants to more renewable sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal power. Emissions also decreased in the industrial sector, which includes factories, cement plants and refineries.


But don’t pour too much celebratory champagne just yet, California. Even as the state has made tremendous progress with clean power and cleaner industrial operations, the state’s largest source of greenhouse gases — cars, trucks and other forms of transportation — has increased emissions in recent years. There are more vehicles on the road, driving further distances and consuming more fossil fuels.

Despite ambitious goals to put more electric cars, buses and eventually trucks on the road, the switch to zero-emission vehicles has been slow. Only recently have long-distance battery-powered electric vehicles come onto the mass market. The state doesn’t yet have enough charging stations to make those vehicles a practical option for many Californians. And while cities across the state are beginning to redesign streets to be more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly, the effort to get people out of their cars is still in its very early stages.

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Cleaning up the transportation sector will be one of the biggest challenges for California as it works to meet its next greenhouse gas target. Senate Bill 32, passed in 2016, requires the state to cut greenhouse emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. That will require the state to more than double the rate at which it has been cutting greenhouse gases, according to the air resources board.

Even AB 32 cheerleaders recognize that meeting the 2030 target will be significantly more challenging. The changes necessary to dramatically shrink the state’s carbon footprint will be seen and felt by Californians in their homes, their jobs, their utility bills and their communities.

Furthermore, even with those changes, California’s emissions cuts represent only a tiny piece of the global carbon reductions necessary to slow global warming. Unless the world moves more aggressively on carbon, we’re headed toward an environmental catastrophe. California’s success so far should encourage leaders to step up.

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