This week President-elect Joe Biden announced that climate change is among his top four priorities when he takes office. His transition website states that global warming “poses an existential threat” and that this moment is a “once-in-a-century opportunity to jolt new life into our economy, strengthen our global leadership, and protect our planet for future generations.”
His $2 trillion climate plan would do a number of things, including making sure the nation reaches net-zero emissions by 2050 and phases out emissions from the electric sector by 2035.
And California climate scientists and policy experts say if Biden wants to make his ambitious plan a reality, he should follow California's example to get back on the international stage when it comes to curbing climate change.
Cara Horowitz, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law, says the proposal is groundbreaking.
“When he becomes president he will have the most ambitious climate plan of any president we've ever had in the United States,” she said.
She also says with months of lead time before the president goes into office there is an opportunity to model his climate practices after California's ambitious climate goals and projects.
“Part of the secret sauce of California's climate policy is … there really isn't one single silver bullet that California has relied on to craft its climate policy,” she said. “Instead, California also has a mix of standards, investments, and an attention to climate justice.”
Because Biden’s plan also has a focus on environmental justice, Horowitz says paying attention to how California has made climate policies equitable is important to build upon nationally. This could also be a moment, she says, to promote California leadership nationally in his cabinet or as heads of federal agencies.
As a baseline move she says the president-elect needs to reenter the Paris Climate Agreement, which the previous administration formally left this month. He could also work — possibly through executive orders — to undo the more than 100 Trump environmental rollbacks. Many have dealt with climate change, including everything from methane to migratory birds to car emissions.
Climate and transportation experts are excited about the possibilities the president-elect’s climate plan presents, including Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.
“From an environmental climate perspective it'll be transformational,” said Sperling. “It'll resurrect a lot of the trajectory we were on before the Trump administration came in."
The larger issue Biden may likely face has to do with the cooperation of Congress. The Republican held Senate could make it difficult for the Biden administration to make America bold on climate change. So much hinges on what happens to the Republican held Senate and whether two Georgia seats turn blue in January.
Horowitz and many others question whether Biden will be able to fully act on climate change “especially if he doesn't have control over the Senate ...but he's starting from a robust, ambitious place with a climate policy.”
What Biden Can Learn From California
To make Biden’s plan a reality, policy experts across California say his team should take lessons from more than a decade of climate policy in the state. Horowitz with UCLA says the state’s strength is being bold.
“One of things the Biden team can pay attention to is the importance of setting really ambitious, economy-wide goals, and not necessarily dictating every detail of how we get there,” she said. “But setting those goals and making clear what we're aiming toward.”
A few years ago California successfully met its climate goal of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, she says. Now it has even greater goals of doubling the reductions by 2030.
For California the Trump rollbacks have hurt, but they weren’t an end-all. For example, when Trump rolled back federal car emission standards California moved ahead with its climate goals this year by making deals with automakers to curb emissions. State leaders also created protections for wetlands when the administration weakened them federally.
The Biden administration can also look to other California successes, including how the state gets about a third of its electricity from renewable energy sources — and 50% by 2025 — or the state’s more controversial cap-and-trade program that has provided billions of dollars through the sale of carbon allowances, said Patrick Gonzalez, a climate scientist with UC Berkeley.
“California has been a leader in setting the strictest emission standards for cars in the country,” he said. “California has powered its economy through energy efficiency. For example, the state economic output increased 50%, while greenhouse gas emissions fell 10%.”
He also says with Biden as president the nation and California could create effective policy to prevent wildfires from worsening as the climate crisis does. The two must work together, he says, because around 50% of all forested land in California is managed by the federal government.
“Outdated policies have generated unnatural accumulations of fuel in California and other Western US forests, by stopping all fires, even natural ones,” he said. “California has more recently been moving in the direction of using proactive fire management, rather than complete fire suppression. This is a promising development that taking nationwide would produce widespread benefits.”
Where California Can Look To Biden
While California has picked the low hanging fruit — things like electrifying the grid and working to lower car emissions — what the state hasn’t started doing well yet is restricting the extraction of oil and gas, said Horowitz with UCLA. That’s important because burning fossil fuels is the main issue behind climate change.
“We haven't started to restrict, in a meaningful way, the extraction of oil and gas,” she said. “Part of the California story is about what strides can be made with the stuff you do first and earliest and easiest. And then where it begins to get tougher over time.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom began this process of moving away from fossil fuels through an executive order in September that instructs the legislature to come up with ways to move away from fracking by 2024.
This is something the Biden administration can build on with its goal of decarbonizing the nation by mid-century and will take extreme investment in zero-emission vehicles like the California goal of not selling new gas powered cars by 2035, says Sperling with UC Davis.
“It's gonna be a little messy for a while,” he said. “The second part of the discussion is, what might the Biden administration do further?”
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