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Climate Change: California's In Front And Not Looking Back

Carl Costa / CALmatters

Mary Serrano tests drive an electric vehicle at a smog repair event on May 30, 2015, in Stockton. The event connected drivers of high-polluting cars with cap-and-trade funds to help purchase cleaner cars.

Carl Costa / CALmatters

Pauline Bartolone | CALmatters

On a recent Saturday in Stockton, Mary Serrano got behind the wheel of a bright-red, all-electric Chevy Spark.

"I feel like I’m going to outer space," says a giddy Serrano, followed by a short fit of laughter.

It was her first time test-driving a zero-emissions vehicle, an opportunity presented to her at a Tune In & Tune Up event at the county fairgrounds. At the day-long events organized by the non-profit Valley CAN, hundreds of drivers of high-polluting cars can get vouchers for smog repair.

Serrano usually drives a 20-year-old Toyota Camry. But if she qualifies, she could get an even larger subsidy to purchase this green vehicle, under a new state pilot project.

"This is the future of tomorrow, or the now, rather?" says Serrano, while being directed through a test course.

The “Plus-Up” version of the Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program (EFMP) allows low-income people with high-polluting cars to get thousands more dollars to help buy low or no emissions vehicles with funds from the cap-and-trade program. The system requires large businesses to pay for pollution under the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act.

California’s Global Warming Solutions, Then and Now

Putting more green vehicles on the road is just one of the objectives of AB32, California’s nine-year-old greenhouse gas reduction law.

The policy put California’s economy under a carbon emissions cap, requiring the state to reduce to 1990 levels by 2020, or 15 percent of projected levels.  The policy pulled together multiple, existing policies in order to meet that goal. It built on a clean car law, and renewable power and building efficiency rules. And it produced the nation’s first cap-and-trade program involving most major polluters.

Today, AB32 remains one of the most ambitious emissions control plans in the world, according to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

"[It was] somewhat of a leap of faith that we could set target emissions," says Democratic State Senator Fran Pavley, who helped usher the bill through the legislature.

Nearly 10 years later, state regulators say it’s difficult to determine how the law has affected the state's economy. In the long term, they say, it's likely to have a minimal impact.

The Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy believes AB32 hasn’t been a job-killer, as critics had initially claimed.

By most accounts, the state seems poised to hit the 2020 emissions target. But in 2013, emissions were still six percent above what they need to be. Under the law, cars are running more cleanly; more power humming through high-voltage lines is coming from renewable sources, and big polluters must reduce their emissions or pay if they can’t.

"I think everyone’s watching what we do in the State of California," says Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León.

Lawmakers Set New Goals

Now policymakers want to set farther-reaching goals. De León is authoring legislation that would double energy efficiency in buildings, dramatically increase the use of renewable energy and cut petroleum use in vehicles by 50 percent, all in the next 15 years. The proposals were first laid out by the governor in his 2015 inaugural address.

"These measures together represent the most far-reaching measures dealing with climate change, not in the history of California, or the history of the country, but I’ll go a step further, and say, in the history of the world," says De León.

But energy economist Severin Borenstein with the UC Berkeley School of Business says the state may be too focused on goals.

"Reducing our emissions isn’t going to substantially change the picture," he says, adding that California generates only about one percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

"What we have to do is figure out the technologies that the developing world would adopt to reduce their emissions. Because if you look forward over the next 20 years, the great share of emissions is going to be coming out of China and India and the developing world," he says.

Borenstein also says the state’s goal of cutting petroleum use in vehicles by half will be really "tough."

But national experts with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions say California’s policies could have a spillover effect if the state proves it can attract clean investment.

"Goals give some certainty about the overall trajectory," says Janet Peace, Senior Vice President of Policy and Business Strategy at the Center.

"You want to send a signal to investors that clean-tech, low-carbon technology is going to be really valuable in the future. And that’s important today, not just 20 years from now," she says.

Back in Stockton, Mary Serrano says it could be years before she buys an electric car. But just weeks from now, lawmakers may commit to a much steeper downward trend in carbon emissions.