Op-Ed: How California can lead the way on climate-protecting technologies

Illustration of a Tesla, a wind turbine and a solar panel overlayed a vector state of California.
(Claire Reid / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images; Unsplash)

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the problem of global climate change. For more than three decades policymakers have been talking about the need for action. Meanwhile, global emissions have kept climbing and warming is accelerating.

Yet unmistakable signs of progress are appearing. They aren’t yet at the global level — where the world’s dependence on conventional fossil fuels has barely budged — but rather in pioneering countries and states that are making big investments in the new technologies needed to protect the planet.

Here in California, signs of innovation abound. Electric vehicles account for 8% of new vehicle sales, and new policies from the California Air Resources Board aim to push that share to 100% by 2035. We are not alone as pioneers. Norway has already reached 60% market share for new electric vehicles.

On the electric grid, California is an early mover to renewables — first wind, now solar — which already account for about 30% of the state’s electric supply; add in other renewable sources such as geothermal and the share climbs to nearly 40%. Progressive policies aim to ensure that renewables rise to 60% of California’s electricity by 2030. And by 2045 all of California’s power supply, along with the rest of the California economy, aspires to be emission-free. (How California will address emissions from all the products we import remains to be seen.)


Although climate change is a global problem, the technological revolutions needed to stop warming will start locally — and, with the right incentives, spread globally. Pioneers like California matter, but successful leadership requires a theory of change that extends beyond borders. California’s carbon emissions account for about 1% of the global total. By providing practical, successful strategies, the state can inspire other governments to adopt similar solutions.

California’s investment on climate change has been substantial and increasing. Building on huge spending in the past, this year the state’s budget surplus has allowed even more: about $4 billion to all forms of spending linked to climate change. Regulation can multiply that number by requiring consumers to make cleaner choices when they buy goods (e.g., cars) and services (e.g., electricity). Even as the federal government struggles to adopt credible and durable climate policies, California has been a reliable leader.

But some policies aren’t as effective as they appear on paper. Examples include rooftop solar power, loved by voters because it is a high-visibility solution but in most cases economically dubious when compared with large solar power plants. (Solar on large buildings and organized across communities and microgrids fares better.)

Also suspect are schemes that allow polluters, such as industrial facilities, to emit more carbon than permitted under the state-established carbon cap by purchasing carbon offset credits. Often this involves buying credits issued to a forest owner who agrees to reduce or delay a timber harvest, thus in theory sequestering carbon in the living tree. While the concept is intriguing, careful recent analysis shows that these schemes are poorly designed and easily gamed, giving polluters a way to avoid what’s really needed: actual cuts in emissions.

For California to set a durable example of climate leadership, it needs to look to new frontiers where big investments can change the world. Here are three areas where California could be poised to find answers.

First is natural gas, a fossil fuel that provides about a third of U.S. energy use, for heating, electricity and industrial needs. Inexpensive gas is the leading reason why the U.S. has cut back on burning coal. Though natural gas produces less greenhouse gas emissions than coal, it also contributes to climate change. Will we switch to other types of decarbonized gaseous fuels or something totally different?

Much of the world faces this question; California must focus on practical answers. That will mean building demonstration power plants that burn gas but can store their pollution safely underground. Also needed are demonstrations of other options, such as replacing natural gas with zero-emissions hydrogen in the gas pipeline system.

Second is integration of renewable power on the grid. Until recently, the big challenge with wind and solar was affordability, along with other renewable sources like geothermal. Today, no other source beats them on cost. The challenge now is keeping the grid reliable as the solar and wind power fluctuates during the day and the year. Even if far more of the grid is powered by these clean sources, we need “clean firm power” to fill in the gaps — whether from gaseous fuels, new kinds of nuclear reactors or fossil fuels with effective carbon capture.


We will also need a lot more electricity storage. Bigger demonstration programs for these technologies, along with more pressure for federal support of the same, will help reveal which of these options works at scale.

Third, and perhaps most vexing, is human behavior. Most energy experts agree that making deep cuts in emissions involves electrifying as much of our energy system as possible and then cleaning up the electric system. Yet we know very little about how these new electric loads will behave. Vehicle charging, for example, could be timed to make use of extra supplies of cheap renewable energy. But, so far, drivers who buy electric vehicles have few incentives to align their behavior. We need to make sure that strategies aimed at electrifying transportation include detailed evaluation so that we can make those policies responsive to what really works.

Californians have long been pioneers in environmental regulation, not only in embracing new technology but also in building political coalitions that make adaptation and change possible. Addressing global warming will require practical answers in transitioning away from existing energy infrastructure. California’s experiments, linking policy and industry, could once again lead the way.

David G. Victor is professor of industrial organization and climate science at UC San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ryan Hanna is an assistant research scientist at UC San Diego.