Your SUV Is Really Messing With California's Climate Plans

Environmental activist with mask of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Frankfurt, where she was expected to open the International Auto Show Sept. 12. In California, drivers' love of SUVs and other gas guzzling vehicles is one reason the state is not on pace to meet its climate goals. (YANN SCHREIBER/AFP/Getty Images)

A couple of years ago, environmental groups and state leaders cheered when California reported it had reached its 2020 emissions target four years early.

But when it comes to meeting California's ambitious 2030-and- beyond climate goals, it appears to be way too early to pop any celebratory champagne.

According to the latest report from the annual California Green Innovation Index, at its current rate of emissions reduction, the state is 31 years behind its 2030 goal, which it wouldn't meet until 2061.

If California is to meet the 2030 target, a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels, the state needs to cut emissions about three times faster than the current rate.  The outlook for California reaching its 2050 goal -- an 80% reduction compared to 1990 -- is even bleaker.  At its current pace, the state will overshoot that goal by a full century.

According to the latest report, by researchers at Beacon Economics and is not the state's official greenhouse gas inventory, California reduced emissions by just over 1 percent from 2017 to 2018.

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“We could be decades behind if we don't implement an ambitious new set of innovative policies, and that’s a big if,” said Noel Perry, founder of Next 10, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that releases the report.

Perry called the numbers, which draw on nearly a decade's worth of data, "a wakeup call."

The Wildfire Issue

California wildfires in 2018 emitted an estimated 45.5 million metric tons of CO2, a 24% increase from 2017, when California wildfires released an estimated total of 26.7 million metric tons.

In 2018, wildfires in California produced "an estimated nine times more emissions than were reduced across the entire state's economy the year prior," according to the report.

The California Air Resources Board, which is in charge of implementing the state's emissions reduction policies, is pushing back on the report's inclusion of these emissions.

Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, said it is a "mistake to compare carbon released by wildfire with human-caused emissions"  because carbon released by wildfires is part of the natural carbon cycle, while emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are the result of extracting carbon that otherwise would stay in the ground.

Still, Young acknowledged that the state’s 2030 goal is going to be a heavy lift.

In 2017, California published a plan to achieve reductions that are “cost-effective” and “technologically feasible," said Young. But they are going to require "continued legislative and funding support," he said.

He pointed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emissions agreement with four major car companies, and the state’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from its cap-and-trade program towards incentives for electric vehicles, as examples of “California’s full-throated commitment to transforming the transportation sector, where we face the biggest challenges.”

Policy Changes

To make the necessary reductions in emissions, Californians will need to make drastic changes in the way they get around, build homes, manufacture goods and consume energy.

“California historically has shown its ability to use policy and technology innovation to make dramatic shifts in carbon reductions,” Perry said. “We've seen that through renewable energy and also in energy efficiency. Although the news is sobering, if California were to galvanize together and create new regulations and new policies that help to drive the reduction of emissions, I think that it is quite possible that we can hit our ambitious policy goals.”

It’s not that California isn’t making progress. In fact, the state's energy sector is slashing carbon emission, particularly from its electricity grid, at the same time the economy has been growing.

Since 1990, the state’s GDP increased by 41% while per capita planet-warming gas emissions fell by 25%, according to the report.

“We're finally seeing a lot of research and development investment start to pay off,” said Adam Fowler, director of research at Beacon. “Renewable energy has reached a tipping point in terms of being increasingly cost competitive with fossil fuels, and that's exciting.”

The problem is that emissions from other sectors are flat or, in the case of transportation, rising. Transportation-related carbon pollution remains the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, mostly because of personal vehicles, the report says.

In 2017, emissions from the transportation sector soared to a record high, as more people drove more miles in larger, less-efficient trucks and SUVs. These vehicles made up 57% of new registrations in state in the fourth quarter of 2018, up from 39% five years ago.

“There has been a shift in consumer preference toward what have historically been less efficient vehicles,” Fowler said. “This is probably one of the most sobering points from the report. Breakthroughs in these hard to reach sectors are going to require ambitious policy setting to push our economic and climate goals forward.”

Some other key takeaways from the report:

  • The state’s renewable energy sector is strong. In 2017, for the first time, a greater portion of California’s power mix came from renewable energy sources like wind and solar than from fossil fuels
  • Renewable resources like hydroelectric, solar and wind are increasingly replacing natural gas.
  • Electric vehicle sales are rising, with adoption up 37% in 2018 over the previous year. Still, while electric, hybrid, and even hydrogen vehicles are more popular, at the current pace, they will account for just 2% of all the cars registered on the road by the end of 2019.
  • Emissions from landfills continue to rise, jumping about 7% in 2017. At the same time, the state’s recycling rate declined. At this rate, California is not on track to meet its goal of a 75% recycling rate by the year 2020, Fowler said.

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