California's (new) climate target

The climate policy community is abuzz with talk of California's new climate target. Earlier this week, Governor Jerry Brown issued Executive Order B-30-15, which sets an “interim” climate target—reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

It’s no accident that California is making waves in advance of the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris this December, nor that the State's new target matches the European Union’s commitment in the UN process. California’s announcement both echoes and reinforces the EU’s climate leadership in the UN negotiations, and may even—as State leaders like Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León hope (E&E ClimateWire subscription req'd)—give “subnational” governments like California a bigger, if not entirely formal, role at the international negotiating table.

This is all great news, of course, and Governor Brown deserves credit for continuing to make strong public statements about the importance of climate change mitigation. But while the climate policy world can always use a reason to celebrate, it's too soon to pop the champagne corks. There's a long road ahead before this target translates into meaningful policy action. 

New targets, old targets

First, while the new order sets an important and actionable medium-term target, it's a little misleading for the Governor's office to call it the "most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target in North America." As others have noted, that honor belongs to Governor Schwarzenegger's Executive Order S-3-05, which set a target of 80% below 1990 emissions levels by 2050.

The 2050 target remains in effect. What makes the 2030 target so important is that it matters for current policy planning purposes, not just long term analysis. 

Source: Figure 6 in CARB's Updated Scoping Plan (May 2014).

On the other hand, Executive Orders are not by themselves legally binding. Rather, they primarily send strong public signals about an administration's views on critical issues. They can even build momentum that lasts from one administration to the next, as evidenced by the vitality of Governor Schwarzenegger's 2050 target during the Brown Administration. As unilateral policy declarations, however, Executive Orders can also be overturned without any fanfare or process when the political winds shift. They also do not, in the words of Governor Brown's most recent order, "create any rights or benefits" under the law—that is, they are unenforceable declarations to which current and future leaders are not legally accountable. 

So let's not oversell this news. Setting a public agenda is just the first step on the road to serious climate policy. A critical and laudable beginning, but only a beginning. What matters most will come next. 

Charting a path to 2030 

With a public target for 2030 announced, the California climate policy community now turns to three important tasks.

  1. Technical analysis: developing credible scenarios that achieve the 2030 and 2050 targets; 
  2. Policy identification: selecting policies to achieve preferred compliance pathways; and,
  3. Policy implementation: passing new laws and regulations.  

The good news is that the technical analysis is well underway. Over at Legal Planet, Cara Horwitz points us to some fascinating work from E3, which modeled a series of pathways to meeting California's aggressive 2050 target. The E3 study, which was funded by a group of California regulators (CARB, CAISO, CPUC, CEC) and the Energy Foundation, illustrates a handful of technically viable approaches to meeting the 2050 target—as well as some useful insights for 2030 planning. 

One of the most important findings from the E3 study is that California faces a number of "forks in the road"—i.e., major strategic choices about the future of the State's energy system. Will California's transportation future focus on electric cars powered by a highly renewable grid with massive new energy storage installations, or will hydrogen produced by renewables during peak wind and sun fuel a fleet of fuel cell vehicles? Will California electrify heating and cooking appliances in residential and commercial buildings, using scarce biomass resources to create low-carbon liquid transportation fuels; or should the state building stock retain gas-fired appliances, substituting fossil fuel-based natural gas with biogas alternatives? 

Whatever your take on these questions (and there's plenty of expert debate on the matter), one thing is clear: there are major uncertainties about the right path forward. For governments like California's—which tend to prefer sector-specific policies above market-based, economy-wide instruments—this uncertainty poses a particular challenge to policy development. 

A new era for state climate policy?

So what comes next? I'd highlight two important legislative proposals already in the works. 

The first comes from Senator Fran Pavley, who co-authored AB 32, the State's landmark global warming law. AB 32 established a legally binding emissions target of reaching 1990 emissions levels by the year 2020, vesting in the California Air Resources Board (CARB) the obligation to meet this target and the legal authority to implement new regulations to get there. Senator Pavley's new proposal, SB 32, would succinctly amend AB 32 to make Governor Schwarzenegger's 2050 target a legal obligation, as well as give CARB the authority to establish interim 2030 and 2040 targets. (Earlier this week, Senator Pavley indicated she will amend her proposed legislation to explicitly include Governor Brown's 2030 target, illustrating the important impacts non-binding Executive Orders can have on binding laws.)

Second, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León has proposed SB 350, which would codify three additional energy targets Governor Brown made in his 2015 State of the State Address:

  1. Increasing California's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to 50% by 2030; 
  2. Decreasing petroleum use in the transportation sector by 50% by 2030; and,
  3. Doubling energy efficiency in buildings by 2030. 

These bills, if enacted, would certainly push California forward on climate and energy policy. But it's interesting to note that neither actually addresses the "forks in the road" that E3 identified. SB 350 tackles some of the common requirements across E3's scenarios—increased renewable electricity, energy efficiency, and reduced petroleum use in the transportation sector. But many of the hardest questions are left for another day. For example, SB 350's transportation target is agnostic with respect to the source of petroleum savings—more efficient vehicles, biofuels, electrification, public transit, and smart growth policies could all contribute. This kind of flexibility can be a virtue, but explicit strategies on transportation are necessary for investment in the required infrastructure—such as electric charging stations to enable widespread electric vehicles, or hydrogen production and distribution systems for fuel cell vehicles. 

SB 32 is even less specific. Once Senator Pavley's intended amendments are in place, it would enshrine both the 2030 and 2050 climate targets into law—important goals, to be sure—but leaves all discretion to CARB to identify the necessary changes and implement appropriate regulations. Frankly, this has me a little worried. Some of CARB's current policies, like its cap-and-trade market, are falling well short of expectations; I've written elsewhere (see here and here) how CARB failed to follow the clear requirements of AB 32 and has intentionally watered down state climate policy in response to industry pressure. California officials have been silent on these problems, but are certainly aware of them. My question for state leaders: if we needed to bend the rules to get to 2020, what reforms at CARB are necessary to achieve our 2030 ambitions? After all, the road to 2030 (and 2050) is much steeper than the one from 2006 to 2020. 

What to look for next

Governor Brown's announcement is great news, and will hopefully brighten the prospects for proposals to extend California's clean energy and climate policies. Keep an eye on SB 32 and SB 350, but remember that even if enacted, these kinds of laws only tackle part of the challenge—and they do so largely by delegating the policy development discussions to California's administrative agencies, where the debates over appropriate regulatory action will likely continue for some time. 

Whether through SB 32, SB 350, or other measures, my guess is that we'll see most action on the "easy" problems, like expanding renewable electricity and energy efficiency. Policymakers and climate advocates alike understand that success in these areas is necessary to California's medium and long term climate strategy, though there's significant disagreement on policies and measures that should follow. What the Governor's office, Legislature, and state energy agencies can accomplish on these fronts will tell us a lot about what will come next on state climate policy. 

The bottom line is that fundamentally transforming the energy sector to reach ambitious climate targets in 2030 and 2050 will take a sustained effort from policymakers, industry, and civil society. After the targets comes planning, and only after that, new policy. For those celebrating this week's announcement, enjoy the weekend—then let's get back to work. After all, 2020 is only five years away, and we'll need a concrete plan for 2030 in hand soon.