Op-Ed: California’s a climate leader? These six proposals show how much more we have to do

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In an op-ed last month, I explained why California’s market-based approach to climate change isn’t working. Since the 2013 onset of the cap-and-trade program, the centerpiece of the state’s policies, greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas sources have actually increased — by 3.5%, according to a ProPublica investigation.

And even an improved cap-and-trade program won’t by itself be sufficient to reach the state’s objectives, including its mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

The most effective way to achieve that goal is to regulate specific polluters.

Not surprisingly, this is emphatically not what polluters want. To get the votes necessary to renew California’s cap-and-trade deal in 2017, climate-minded legislators made a trade to please the powerful oil lobby: They agreed to a moratorium on direct regulation of oil and gas emissions. Now a new law should end that moratorium. Lawmakers would have to overcome industry opposition all over again, but unlike the 2017 extension, which required a two-thirds vote of both houses, a bill lifting the moratorium would require only a simple majority to loosen oil’s stranglehold on climate change policy.


Even without ending the moratorium, the state can and should look beyond cap and trade. Energy Innovation, a San Francisco think tank, spent more than two years developing a computer model called an Energy Policy Simulator to measure the capacity of assorted policies to reach and possibly improve on the state’s 2030 goals. The result shows it’s doable.

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Four of the think tank’s six proposals would simply strengthen existing policies, including increasing the cap-and-trade program’s carbon price floor from its current ineffectual level of $16.68 per ton of carbon emissions (far below the $40 to $80 price range recommended in a recent World Bank report). But Energy Innovation hesitates to call for a really hefty increase in the price because it would result in higher gasoline prices.

Instead, the computer modelers recommend combining various strategies. Building on mandates already in place, the state should require that, by 2030, nearly 70% of electricity will be derived from clean energy sources, up from the current goal of 60%. The state’s vehicle standard should be shifted from 5 million to 7.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030, requiring that 80% of new cars sold in 2030 are electric.
And nascent efforts to promote building electrification should be accelerated, replacing residential natural gas space and water heaters with electric heat pumps.

The other Energy Innovation proposals would require new initiatives. First, legislators should set a zero-emission standard for heat used in industrial processing, which would jump-start the development of non-carbon-emitting technologies such as solar thermal energy and hydrogen. It’s a crucial shift, because burning fossil fuels — even somewhat cleaner natural gas — to produce heat for industrial processes emits about 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions. If California leads on this, other jurisdictions will follow.

Clean high-heat technologies would also pave the way for requiring the notoriously polluting cement industry to reduce its carbon emissions. California is the nation’s second-largest cement producer, and it’s high-heat practices are particularly dirty: A report a year ago by Global Efficiency Intelligence, a San Francisco consulting firm, found that the emission intensity of California cement was 57% higher than China’s.

Although climate policy opponents often argue that direct regulations are expensive undertakings with minimal climate benefits, Energy Innovation calculates a cascading positive effect dependent, in part, on just such a targeted approach. Its simulations show its six proposals would generate $21 billion in net economic and social benefits over the next decade. A reduction in carbon pollution, for example, would mean less air and water pollution, which would mean that fewer people get sick, especially among the poor, who suffer inordinately from pollution-related illness.


California Republicans, however, are headed in the opposite direction. Instead of responsibly addressing climate change, they’re trying to obstruct the process.

In October, two GOP legislators representing the fire-ravaged town of Paradise introduced shortsighted bills that would “pause” the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard program, which enforces the requirement that utilities invest in clean energy sources to meet 2030 goals. The new bill would allow utilities to redirect their money to hardening the electrical infrastructure that set off the Paradise conflagration. Burying electrical lines is a good idea, but only about 5% of the blazes that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection tabulated in the state from 2014-18 were traced to electrical equipment, according to an agency spokesman. The Renewables Portfolio program — the state’s most successful effort to lower carbon emissions so far — shouldn’t be sacrificed for fire infrastructure.

We cannot solve a symptom of climate change — proliferating wildfire — by retreating from hard won policies that attack the malady itself. We can’t pull back from emissions cuts; on the contrary, it’s time to double down.

Jacques Leslie is a contributing writer to Opinion.