2013 was a pivotal year for California's efforts to confront the increasingly ominous threats from climate change.
The nation's broadest cap-and-trade program for carbon pollution kicked in, and Governor Jerry Brown joined in two new multi-state pacts aimed at curbing emissions. But seven years after passing its landmark climate law, California's journey toward attaining its climate goals has just begun.
After years of effort by California policymakers to shrink the state's carbon footprint, the darnedest thing happened: the economy rebounded from its three-year recession—and so did greenhouse gas emissions.
"Over the past year, for instance, we've begun to see that emissions are rising again," says Stanley Young with the California Air Resources Board. "But the interesting thing is that they are not rising as fast as the California economy is growing."
Young's agency is charged with developing rules to meet the state's legislated mandate to cut carbon emissions back to 1990 levels, by 2020. Young is not deterred by the post-recession set-back.
"We will be able to make our 2020 goals," he said in an interview. "That is clear."
What's not so clear is what happens after that.
"Our best guess is that we are well on our way to meeting the 2020 standard, so the policies that we have in place do seem to be sufficient for that," says Jeff Greenblatt, an energy scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. "But looking to 2030 and beyond, we're gonna have to do more."
The 80 percent solution
Greenblatt raised some eyebrows in early November when he published projections of what it will take to hit California's long-term goal, set by executive order during the Schwarzenegger years: an 80 percent cut in emissions by 2050.
As the Air Board's Young sees it, California is on a roll: "We're seeing far more electric vehicles on the road, for instance. That's an important part of the plan."
But even with the recent impressive growth of plug-in electric cars, it's early in the game. California just joined with seven other states in a push to get 3.3 million "zero-emission" vehicles on the road by 2025. Depending on what you count, there are 25 to 30 million registered vehicles on the road right now, just in California—and Greenblatt says 80 to 90 percent would have to be zero-emission (electric or otherwise) to get to that 2050 goal, because transportation accounts for the biggest single chunk of California's carbon footprint.
"These cars are driving around all over the place, so you can't capture the CO2 from their tailpipes and store it somewhere," Greenblatt explained in a recent interview. "So it's very important to be able to shift to a low-carbon energy carrier like electricity or like hydrogen."
Decarbonizing your electrical outlets
Of course, electric cars are only as clean as the juice that powers them. Regulators say the state is on track to hit another key target for 2020: generating one-third of its electrical power from renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal. But by Greenblatt's reckoning, that won't be enough for the long haul, either.
"We essentially need our electricity system to run without any carbon emissions at all in 2050."
Yikes. That's 100 percent carbon-free electricity. But that daunting assertion doesn't mean all renewable power, which is good because many experts agree that goal may not be possible. Some have calculated that 80 percent renewables may be technically feasible—but not without a major update to the electrical grid.
We may still need to burn some natural gas and capture its carbon emissions, so they don’t get into the air.
Since the shutdown of Southern California Edison's San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Diego, utilities have used natural gas to replace the carbon-free nuclear power lost from the grid. That set off alarms with environmental groups, who took to the streets in San Francisco this month, demanding that state regulators require renewable replacement power.
An optimist in spite of the numbers
"I guess I would say, I'm an optimist but I don't think this is gonna happen without a lot of trial and challenge, says Greenblatt, who expressed concern that his report was misconstrued in news accounts when it came out in November. He says it's not that we can't get to the 2050 goals. It's that we won't get there unless we step up our game—even beyond the aggressive policies the state has put in place.
That's why this year, the Air Board rolled out a revised playbook that includes some new initiatives and suggested the state adopt new 2030 goals, moving the target a little closer.
"We need a midpoint," says the Air Board's Young. "2050 is too far off to really grasp. From a broad policy perspective, we can take a look at where we need to be. But in terms of the programmatic elements, that's a harder crystal ball."
Already, the idea of a "midterm" target is raising hackles. Some say the state's landmark climate law has no authority after 2020. So we might need a whole new law to keep things rolling. And even the state's pioneering cap-and-trade program remains under legal assault from industry.
"But I refuse to give up," says Greenblatt, who says he's had to reassure his nine-year-old daughter that he's working on the problem as hard as he can. "I want to live to see 2050 happen and to say we actually did this."