Biden’s Climate Pledge For First Time Pushes U.S. Beyond California Goals

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Vice President Kamala Harris and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry watch as President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about tackling climate change, creating jobs and restoring scientific integrity on Jan. 27, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Banning fracking by 2024, phasing out all new sales of gas-powered cars by 2035, and achieving carbon neutrality 10 years later are just a few of California’s goals making it a leader among U.S. states in tackling climate change. But a new pledge from the White House to halve nationwide greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels could for the first time leave the state lagging behind the federal government on climate policy. 

“On paper, the U.S. government is at least temporarily ahead of California,” said Dan Kammen, director of UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. “That's amazing to say, because basically we were always ahead at the state level.”

President Biden’s goal could push California to be more ambitious, Kammen says. Which is something the state needs to do, according to Jason Barbose, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior policy manager for the Western U.S.

“California has been there to really help spearhead action,” Barbose said. But the state’s “current goals are not keeping up with the rest of the world, and, more importantly, not keeping up with the science [which] tells us that deeper cuts are essential to stave off the worst impacts of climate change."

Because California emission targets are based on 1990 levels and Biden’s plan uses 2005 as a base year, Kammen says the U.S. goal is only about 3% more ambitious than the state’s. 

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Kammen believes California already has the capability to go beyond its current targets. His team makes the case for an almost 80% drop in emissions by 2030, double the current goal. Existing plans and proposals like a requirement to generate 100% of electricity from clean energy by 2045, and a bill to create a forest of wind turbines off the Pacific Coast, could help the state ratchet up reductions.

“If California can really adopt an 80% clean energy standard by 2030, that really would jump us ahead again,” Kammen said.

State Sens. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, and Henry Stern, D-Los Angeles, have already introduced legislation to establish a minimum 80% decrease as the target for 2030, followed by net negative emissions no later than 2035. The bill calls for the reductions in the name of securing “a safe climate for all.”

But the inclusion of “all” in climate policy would mean a shift from big climate goals to people-focused adaptation solutions, say some climate experts. Hana Creger, the Greenling Institute’s senior manager for climate equity, says remedies could include ramping up the funding that goes to disadvantaged communities from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund or investing more in programs like the state’s Transformative Climate Communities Program, which helps fund community-led climate projects in places like Stockton.

Programs focused on teaching people about the climate crisis then empowering them to take action offer a model not only for fighting climate change, but also for building economic opportunity, Creger says. 

Such programs address “the historic oppression of low-income folks of color” and allow communities “to really chart their own path by choosing their own goals and strategies and projects that will both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution,” she said.

While Creger recognizes top-down regulations are needed, she says information gaps exist for residents already surrounded by climate impacts. And big climate goals may not resonate with people dealing with societal and economic woes. 

“We have to recognize that every single community has completely different needs,” she said. “We can't take a prescriptive approach with our climate-equity kind of solutions.”

These could come in the form of affordable housing projects near transit, planted urban tree canopies, homes outfitted for solar energy, and the creation of green jobs, she said.

Creger is hoping Biden’s desire to address issues of equity as well as the climate crisis will prompt California to invest in all of its residents. 

“It should be much more about how we bring our communities along to a place where folks cannot just react to climate change, but really thrive in the face of it, “ she said.