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California's Working to Protect the Climate With or Without the Feds

Jerry Brown at a 2015 signing of a multilateral climate agreement among 11 states and provinces | Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Jerry Brown at a 2015 signing of a multilateral climate agreement among 11 states and provinces | Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate accord is regrettable, it’s not going to make a huge difference in California’s day-to-day climate change policy.

The reason: California’s climate policy is already years ahead of the voluntary measures the United States agreed to by signing the Paris agreement in 2016, and the United States’ exit from the agreement won’t change that.

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The Paris agreement’s overarching goal is to limit global warming to 2° Celsius or lower, mainly through a pledge by signatory nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Each of the signatory nations set their own targets for reduction, and there is no penalty (other than negative public opinion) for nations that don’t meet their targets.

The U.S. was already falling far behind in its progress toward meeting those goals when Trump took office, and now the Executive Branch has pledged to ignore the goals altogether.

But in California, the state is obligated by its own laws to make deeper emissions cuts than what would have been its share of national emissions reductions under the Paris accord. And the state’s elected officials from Congress on down to municipalities are working to deepen California’s commitment to climate action even more.

It’s not that it’ll necessarily be smooth sailing for California after Trump’s attempt to walk away from Paris. While state laws addressing greenhouse gas emissions won’t be directly affected, there will likely be indirect effects from Trump’s move that the state will need to contend with.

Trump’s stance on the Paris Agreement, said Cara Horowitz, could actually reduce California’s influence among more recalcitrant states. Horowitz, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, points out that Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Agreement is just one part of an overall federal climate policy that works against California’s goals.

But abandoning the Paris Agreement, said Horowitz, likely won’t discourage California’s elected officials from pursuing an aggressive climate change strategy.

“California has some of the most ambitious climate goals and they're already enshrined into state law,” Horowitz pointed out. “The California legislature is already working to pass a set of bills that would ramp up our obligations under state law… Governor Brown and the legislative leaders have made it clear they want California to lead the way on climate change.”

Here are five reasons that California’s climate policy will strengthen after Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate agreement.

California Legislature infographic detail | IMage: Dennis Nishi, KCETLink

1: California's state climate laws are way stronger than the Paris Agreement

The state’s landmark climate change law, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (a.k.a. AB 32), set an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target for the state. In 2016, that law was strengthened significantly by the California legislature when it passed an expansion of the Act called SB 32. Under the law California must reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, and then to just 60 percent of that by 2030. By 2050, the state’s emissions must fall to just one fifth of 1990’s levels.

Under the Paris agreement, the United States pledged to reduce its emissions to at most 74 percent of its 2005 total by 2025, a target roughly equivalent to California’s 2020 target under AB 32. But aside from a promise to make its “best efforts” to cut those emissions by an additional two percent, that’s where the American emission control commitment under the Paris agreement stops.

As a result of AB32, the state has enacted tough new laws on renewable energy standards, vehicle efficiency, and a zero-emissions vehicle goal, started an effective cap and trade system for carbon emissions, pushed for trash reduction through recycling, reuse and composting to reduce methane emissions from landfills, and generally tightened controls on greenhouse gases across most industries. Recent estimates show the state is more or less on track to meet its 2020 target.

Due to the size of California’s economy, the state is responsible for around six percent of total greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. Of all 50 states, only Texas has more greenhouse gas emissions than California. Which means that AB32 would, ironically, have been disproportionately helpful in America’s attempt to meet its commitment under the Paris agreement.

California will be working with other states to strengthen climate policy

California is often portrayed in the press as a loner out on the bleeding edge of environmental policy. But California has a lot of company out on that edge.

Take the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, begun in 2002, which requires that utilities in California derive a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and half by 2030. The state is well on its way to meeting those targets, with around 27 percent of the state’s energy consumption being supplied by solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. (As Donald Trump made his announcement on June 1 renewables were providing nearly half of the energy being used in California. That’s not counting energy from large hydroelectric plants.)

Almost immediately after the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard was signed into law, other states began trying to sell wind, solar, and geothermal power to the Golden State. Today, the state’s Energy Imbalance Market, which allows short-term sales of renewable energy (and other energy as well) across state lines, has been joined by utilities in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, with a British Columbia power company agreeing to sign on in late May, and pointed interest from the Mexican power company serving Baja California Norte.

In some arenas where California has taken the lead in environmental laws affecting climate, other states are all too happy to sign on. The 1970 federal Clean Air Act included a specific waiver for California allowing the state to enact tougher vehicle emission standards than those mandated in federal law. California had been restricting tailpipe emissions for a few years, and Congress decided to let the state keep on enforcing its own tougher standards.

That waiver helped clean up the horrific smog California cities endured during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it also gave the state a tool for fighting climate change before the state knew it was a problem; dirtier vehicles tend to emit more greenhouse gases, and cleaning them up usually helps the climate. And the Clean Air Act’s waiver also permitted other states to sign on to California’s tougher regulations. Fifteen other states have done so.

Here’s an issue where Trump administration policy may well hurt California’s climate efforts: the Environmental Protection Agency is likely to attempt to revoke California’s waiver.

That would be a policy bombshell: the 16 states that follow California rules make up one third of the domestic auto market. And it might be harder to pull off than Trump and Pruitt imagine. "It would literally be unprecedented,” said Dave Cook, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC. “There's no clear mechanism in the regulations in which they could revoke a waiver. And, frankly, the scientific and technical basis underpinning the granting of the original waiver, an immediate and challenging problem that California has to deal with, has grown stronger as the impacts on extreme weather makes a clearer case for immediate action.”

“It's unclear how… they could revoke California's waiver,” Cook added. “It's less likely to happen by executive action. Congress would have to act." 

So there’s a chance the Trump administration could deal a serious setback to California’s attempts to keep our cars from heating the planet. But Trump walking away from Paris doesn’t affect that, except symbolically.

California’s readiness to work with other states to combat climate change is only growing. Within hours of Trump’s announcement, Jerry Brown, along with Governors Cuomo and Inslee of New York and Washington, respectively, announced the formation of the United States Climate Alliance, a network of states that have pledged to meet or exceed the emissions reduction goals to which the U.S. agreed in signing the Paris Agreement.

Within days of the announcement of the Alliance's formation, 10 other states and U.S. territories — Oregon, Hawaii, Minnesota, Puerto Rico, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia, Delaware, and Rhode Island — had signed on as well. It's likely more will have joined by the time you read this. 

Of special interest: It's states' governors who have been deciding to sign on, and two so far, Massachusetts' Charlie Baker and Phil Scott of Vermont, are Republicans. Member states so far make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population, and generate nearly a third of the nation's GDP. 

Nations detail from California infographic | image: Dennis Nishi/KCETLink

California is a global player

The U.S. Constitution says that only the federal government can sign treaties or other formal international agreements with other countries. That means California can’t just sign on to the the Paris Agreement and go about its business.

But there are plenty of other ways to work with other governments, and California is taking advantage of a lot of them.

We've already mentioned this week’s decision by the Canadian utility Powerex to join the Energy Imbalance Market operated by the California Independent System Operator, which will make it easier for that company to sell surplus hydroelectric power from British Columbia to western states. Mexico’s government utility El Centro Nacional de Control de Energía is considering adding the state of Baja California Norte to that market, as well.

California’s no stranger to cross-border climate initiatives. The state helped found the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), which included five western states when it launched in 2007 and now consists of California, BC, Quebec and Ontario. WCI is the organization that manages the international greenhouse gas cap and trade program covering California, Quebec and Ontario, which shows signs of expanding further.

Agreements to trade renewable energy and carbon credits are one path for international cooperation. Voluntary association is another. A network called the Under2 Coalition provides a good example. The Coalition sponsors an agreement called the Memorandum of Understanding on Subnational Global Climate Leadership, a.k.a. the Under2 MOU, whose signers pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions drastically — 85 to 90 percent below 1990 levels, or two tons per capita — by 2050. The MOU’s 170 signers include 13 nations — Canada and Mexico among them — and dozens of smaller jurisdictions from cities to states and provinces. California was a founding signer of the MOU, and the cities of Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco have signed on as well.

The Under2 MOU may well become a more potent climate change agreement than the Paris accord, as it allows smaller regions to sign on and work to reduce their emissions even if their national government doesn’t sign on.

If California Governor Jerry Brown’s responses to Trump’s Paris announcement are any indication, California’s international agreements will only grow. Just hours after Trump’s announcement, Reuters reported that Brown would explore the possibility of adding China to the carbon credit trading arrangement between California, Quebec, and Ontario, or linking China’s emissions markets with California’s in some other way. Brown flew to China on June 2 for talks with Chinese officials the following week.

“Paris was very much created because of [China’s President] Xi [Jinping] and Obama,” Brown told the BBC in a lengthy interview. “Obama has left the scene, President Trump has gone AWOL, and now it's up to Xi. And California will work with him and work with other countries to do everything we can to offset the negative pathway chosen by President Trump."

Governor Brown and Sichuan Governor Yin Li sign sister-state agreement. | Photo: Office of the Governor of California
Governor Brown and Sichuan Governor Yin Li sign sister-state agreement that will boost cooperation on clean energy development. Sichuan was the first Chinese province to sign the Under2MOU. | Photo: Office of the Governor of California

According to David Victor, a professor of International Relations at UC San Diego who serves as co-chair for foreign policy and energy security at the Brookings Institute, that’s not just political rhetoric on Brown’s part.

“[Brown is] going to go there and offer a bold vision for innovation based in California and partnership,” Victor said. “And he's going to say that the U.S. federal government has left its role and that role is shifting to California. And the Chinese are going to be thrilled to hear that.”

“There's a long standing relationship between China and California on issues of air pollution regulation, so there's a foundation there that will be relatively easy to build on,” Victor added. “Chinese regulators are in California all the time to learn about what we're doing. California firms visit China… to build technology partnerships. The relationship between the state and China is a serious one."

Detail of California infographic | Image: Dennis Nishi/KCETLink

Climate policy is good for the California economy

It’s an article of faith among some people on the right (but not all) that climate mitigation is bad for business. Even the U.S.’s modest targets under the Paris Agreement came in for scathing criticism, including from Donald Trump as he announced his plans to withdraw from the agreement:

Trump also cited a study by the National Economic Research Associates claiming that the Paris Agreement would cost 2.7 million jobs by 2025. (The Washington Post’s fact-checkers cast significant doubt on that claim a few hours later.)

In fact, as California enacts policies that penalize carbon-intensive industry and promote new, more benign technologies, the state’s economy has grown dramatically.

California GDP compared to the state's greenhouse gas emissions | Graph: CalEPA
As the state's GDP has grown along with its population, greenhouse gas emissions keep dropping. | Graph: CalEPA/CARB

It is absolutely true that jobs in some industries will inevitably be lost as human society contends with climate change. Most jobs in the coal industry will disappear forever. Likewise with oil industry jobs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the entire U.S. coal industry employed just 53,420 people nationwide in 2016, a drop of nearly 20,000 jobs in two years.

During that same period, in 2015, there were more than 20,000 new solar jobs created in California alone, and more than 24,000 in 2016. Just in California, the solar industry employs more than 100,000 people — twice the number of national jobs in the coal industry.

It’s not just solar. Battling climate change creates jobs in lots of different industrial sectors, from manufacturing of composite material wind turbine components to contractors' jobs created as homeowners take advantage of weatherizing incentives.

As Governor Jerry Brown said in a June 1 interview held by the World Resources Institute:

That may be why some of California’s largest corporations, including Apple, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Google, co-signed a letter earlier this year urging Donald Trump not to walk away from the Paris Agreement. Many California businesses support climate change action, which makes it more likely that the state will be able to ramp up its climate policies.

California is ready to fight

It’s no secret that California’s political leadership and the Trump administration are at odds. That became clear two weeks before the Inauguration, when California hired former Attorney General Eric Holder and his law firm to battle the Trump administration if it tried to roll back California state policy on the environment and other matters. Even the Trump supporters in the state tend to be more moderate on issues like recognizing that climate change exists. California has long been at the forefront of environmental policy in the United States, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

As became clear in the hours after Donald Trump’s June 1 announcement, the Trump administration’s climate policy will probably serve to embolden California to take more aggressive steps to combat climate change.

The Brookings Institute’s David Victor put it this way:

Californian environmental activists generally agreed with Victor’s take on the likely backlash to Trump’s announcement. “Because California has led with strong policies to fight climate change and bring the benefits of the clean energy economy to disadvantaged communities, we won’t feel this drastically,” said Greenlining Institute Environmental Equity Director Alvaro Sanchez. “Still, California can’t solve climate change alone, and this fool-hearted action will embolden polluters and put the world on a dangerous path.”

Sanchez pointed out that as Trump was preparing his statement on the Paris Agreement, California legislators were advancing even more aggressive climate policies, such as SB100, which would raise California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requirement to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. SB 100 passed the State Senate in a 25-13 vote May 31, and now heads to the Assembly.

“While we have a healthy debate about the details, California continues to show leadership on fair, far-sighted climate policies through new legislation now moving forward,” Sanchez said. “Bills like SB 100… can build on our past success and help insulate California from misguided federal actions. Trump wants to lead us down the dead-end of the dirty energy economy, but we are The Resistance and ultimately, we will win.”

KCET’s Digital Producer Dennis Nishi contributed substantially to this report, and created the "California Trumps The Feds on Climate Change" infographic.

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