California slashes carbon emissions below 1990 levels, but hardest work lies ahead

smoke billowing from a smoke stack
(Photo: Dillion Pryce via Flickr)

Here’s some good news about climate change, for a change: The California Air Resources Board says carbon emissions have fallen by 12 million metric tons. That means California as a state has met its goal for cutting emissions four years early.

People were pretty excited:

California’s carbon-dioxide emissions fell to 429 million metric tons in 2016. There’s a two-year lag in data reporting, which is why it’s just coming out now. That means Californians are emitting less than the state did in 1990.

And that matters, because 1990 was the target goal to hit by 2020.

And how did the state pull this off?

Mostly by using cleaner electricity. Switching away from fossil fuels, which emit a lot of carbon dioxide, to wind, hydro and solar, which don’t emit any.

This was easier because in 2016, California had a lot of hydro power. Remember that was the winter with the record-breaking rainfall and huge snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. All that hydropower meant the state didn’t have to run natural-gas fired power plants as much.

Why is it important that emissions fell so much?

It shows that California’s climate policies are working and not destroying the economy.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – who signed California’s first-ever climate bill in 2006 – tweeted that California’s economy is growing, unemployment is very low and that “should send a message to politicians all over the country: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just copy us.”

It’s also a sign that the state’s cap-and-trade program is working well to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The program forced big polluters, such as power plants and refineries, to buy permits to offset their carbon emissions. Before, polluters could pollute without penalty.

What’s the downside?

The downside is that emissions from cars and trucks are increasing; they’re up 2 percent over the past year. Part of that is that we’re driving more miles and driving bigger vehicles, particularly SUVs and pickups.

California’s carbon-dioxide emissions in 2016. (Graphic: California Air Resources Board (CARB) .

So today, a much larger percentage of total carbon emissions are from cars — 41 percent — than from electricity, which is 16 percent.

Why is that a problem?

That’s a problem because it’s way, way harder to clean up cars and trucks than it is to clean up power plants.

Think about it: You can generate electricity in a lot of different ways, including solar, wind, natural gas and coal. So cleaning up electricity is just a matter of switching fuels.

But with cars and trucks, gasoline remains the dominant fuel by far. Of the 35 million cars in California, only 180,000 are electric. That number is growing, but electric cars still aren’t as practical or as affordable for most people as a gas-powered car.

Also just practically speaking: It’s a lot harder to change the behavior of 35 million car-owners than the operators of the 1,000 or so power plants in California.

What can be done about emissions from transportation?

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to get 5 million electric cars on the road by 2030.

There are already things in place to help make the cars cheaper, such as tax credits and rebates. So now the push is going to be toward building more places for people to charge them.

There are 14,000 public chargers in California, a number Brown wants to increase to 250,000. He thinks that’ll also help make electric cars more visible so people see them around and think, “Hey, look at that electric car! Maybe I’ll buy one.”

The 2020 goals have been met – what’s next?

It only gets harder from here. The new goal, set in September 2016, is to slash our carbon-dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which is way more ambitious than the target that was just met.

The new goal means Californians are going to have to get serious about cutting emissions from transportation and other areas that haven’t made much progress yet and/or are more politically difficult. A big test will be agriculture — cow burps, flatulence and manure greatly contribute to climate change.

Then there’s phasing out natural gas use for heating and cooking. And making houses way more energy efficient. And on and on.

In a recent tweet, Colin Murphy, the transportation policy manager at NextGen Policy Center, said the air-resources board’s July 12 announcement “is legitimately cause for (brief) celebration.”

“I’ll pause a moment to let you bask in the warm glow. O.k. that’s enough of that. Hope you enjoyed the basking, we’ve got work to do.”