Leadership
California Signs Most Ambitious Legislation Yet to Slash GHG Emissions

California is about to face its biggest emissions reductions challenges yet, under new legislation signed late last week by Governor Jerry Brown. With a population of 38 million and growing, and a GDP of almost $2.5 trillion, California is the sixth-largest economy in the world – and now has one of the most ambitious mandates against climate change.

Under a previous law enacted 10 years ago by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state was aiming to return to 1990 levels by 2020. Officials have reported that the state is expected to meet that target, but the new legislation, SB 32, is far more ambitious – it requires the state to slash greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

“What we’re doing here is farsighted, as well as far-reaching,” Brown said at a signing ceremony at Vista Hermosa Natural Park in downtown Los Angeles, which was built atop an old oil field. “California is doing something that no other state has done.”

The legislation comes after more than a year of political battling and opposition from industry groups and others who argued that tightening such restrictions would harm the economy and job growth. Other business leaders were more supportive and implored quick action on climate targets, including nearly 200 who sent a letter in support of SB 32 the day before the vote. As might be expected, environmental lobbying groups praised Brown’s and California’s leadership for signing it into law.

“It is the most ambitious emission-reduction target in the nation and one of the most ambitious in the world,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a group that backed the legislation. “[It] sets an important example for other states and nations.”

Achieving the new target will not be without its challenges. In fact, some doubt that achieving the new target will even be possible. The task would be no easy feat for any state, and could be even more difficult for California given that it is projected to grow from its current population and GDP of 38 million people and $2.5 trillion, respectively, to 44 million people and $3.5 trillion.

“We’re going to have to make the change about three times as fast as we’ve done so far,” James Sweeney, director of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University, told the Los Angeles Times.

The state has already been ramping up clean energy generation, offering subsidies for buyers of electric vehicles, and encouraging the creation of denser communities connected to mass transit. Research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) released last year showed that current policies have put the state on track to meet the previous target, and make the new target possible.

“The big news here is that not only will California meet its 2020 reduction goals under AB 32, but it could achieve reductions of at least 40 percent below that level in the 2030 time frame,” Jeffery Greenblatt, author of the study and a scientist at Berkeley Lab, said at the time of the research’s release.

At the same time, Greenblatt’s study acknowledged that it will be a challenging feat and that much more will need to be done if the state’s 2050 climate goals are to be met. Further adding to the uncertainty is California’s cap-and-trade program, the future of which SB 32 does not specifically address. The cap-and-trade program made billions of dollars initially, but revenues have slowed and a legal battle over whether it amounts to an unconstitutional tax is ongoing. Brown remains optimistic, and hopes the new legislation will help persuade businesses to support an extension of cap-and-trade.

“Whatever it's going to take, it's going to take battle, it’s going to take wisdom and it will take some balance that we don't overdo it,” Brown said in his speech at the signing ceremony. “But I'm not afraid that we're going to get to that point.”

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