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California Meets Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goal Years Early

Rich Pedroncelli / AP / File

This Sept. 22, 2006 file photo shows the Conoco Oil Refinery in Rodeo, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP / File

California has hit its goal for lowering climate change-causing emissions early.

The state Air Resources Board announced Wednesday that greenhouse gas emissions fell below 1990 levels in 2016 — the most recent year data is available — four years earlier than the 2020 target set last decade.

“California set the toughest emissions targets in the nation, tracked progress and delivered results,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement sent out by the board.

Stanford energy researcher Michael Wara says California’s climate policies played a significant role, but not the only one. A variety of forces buffeted California’s emissions down and sometimes up over the past two decades, but one factor helped make 2016 the year the state hit its 2020 climate goal.

“The big change in 2016 that kind of pushed us below the 1990 levels is actually probably the weather,” said Stanford University energy researcher Michael Wara.

The end of the five-year drought put the West’s hydroelectric power back online, pushing down California emissions from electricity use by 18 percent from the year prior, according to the Air Resources Board.

A San Francisco State and UC Berkeleystudy published Tuesday found California emissions reductions came from largely out-of-state earlier this decade. Wara says that reflects how the state started by making the most economical cuts.

“The first thing that California did was to wean our utilities off of this dirty coal-fired power, and as a result of that, you don’t see a lot of in-state benefit,” Wara said. “I think moving forward we’re likely to see more of that if only because we’ve run out of options out of state to reduce our emissions.”

The study criticized the state’s cap-and-trade program for the lack of in-state reductions, although that program likely accounts for less than 20 percent of the state’s cuts. Wara points to the economic recession, new investments in solar power and greater energy efficiency as also helping California lower its greenhouse gas emissions.

“Good climate policy is good for environmental justice,” said the study’s lead author Lara Cushing, a San Francisco State health professor. “What we’ve seen from our study is that so far, California’s cap-and-trade program hasn’t really delivered on that potential.”

In extending the cap-and-trade program last year, California lawmakers also agreed to fund more regulation and cuts to emissions in communities with poor air quality.

Lawmakers and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger set the 2020 goal in 2006. Two years ago, Gov. Brown approved a new goal for 2030—a 40 percent emissions cut below 1990 levels.

Wara says the state has already found the easiest and cheapest reductions, but now must turn to a more difficult task: Cleaning up the transportation sector, which is now the state’s largest source of emissions. Transportation-related emissions grew 2 percent in 2016.

“We need to completely alter that situation. We cannot accomplish the 2030 goal on the back of the electricity sector, just because there aren’t enough emissions left,” Wara said.

Ben Bradford

Former State Government Reporter

As the State Government Reporter, Ben covered California politics, policy and the interaction between the two. He previously reported on local and state politics, business, energy, and environment for WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Read Full Bio 

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