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California's Climate Commitment

Bucking the national trend, voters uphold SB 32, the state's carbon cutting program

3 min read
California's Climate Commitment

“[Climate change] creeps up on you. And then all of a sudden, it is too late to do something about it. ... We don’t want to go there.”

Thus spoke Schwarzenegger, California's body-building movie star governor, upon signing four years ago a California law committing the state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions an estimated 25-30 percent by 2020. Nationally, any directed governmental effort to reduce GHG died earlier this year when the White House gave up on getting a cap-and-trade bill through the Senate; with last yesterday's loss of the House, the idea of deliberately reducing U.S. carbon emission is dead as a doornail. But Californians, defying the national trend, voted to uphold Arnold Schwarzenegger's SB 32--and, in the same breath, chose Democrats Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer over the former corporate CEOs Meg Whitfield and Carly Fiorina, for governor and senator.

The battle over Proposition 23, which would have suspended implementation of the state's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 until economic conditions improve, was seen as a national bellwether and pitted some big-name donors on both sides of the fight against each other: Supporters of the ballot initiative included a Kansas company owned by the Koch brothers ($1 million), the Missouri-based Adam Smith foundation (nearly $500,000), and Occidental Petroleum ($300,000); among the opponents were San Francisco Democratic Party donor Thomas Steyer ($2.5 million), the Natural Resources Defense Council (more than $1 million), and venture capitalist John Doerr ($500,000).

Evidently the state's voters bought arguments that California's future depends on a sustained commitment to advanced green tech, and elected leaders they can count on to stick with the program. Brown, a former governor known for his visionary attitudes toward technology, once wanted California to have its own space program. Boxer, as chairperson of the Senate environmental committee, is one of the most influential national players in climate and energy policy.

California's commitment to greenhouse gas reduction was striking four years ago, and its reaffirmation of that commitment is all the more striking today, because in many ways it's tougher for the golden state to cut carbon than it would be for the country as a whole. The state already has in place some of the strictest building and fuel efficiency standards in the world, and little of its in-state electricity generation depends on coal. So while the United States could easily cut its emissions sharply by imposing much tougher standards and by encouraging rapid replacement of coal-fired plants by cleaner technology, California does not have those options.

That said, the one thing the golden state does have in relative abundance is sun. This last week, Schwarzenegger and the U.S. interior secretary joined with BrightSource executives to hail the beginning of construction of  the 370 MW, utility-scale Ivanpah solar concentrating plant. "Today we are breaking ground on the largest solar project in the world, right here in California," boasted Schwarzenegger. To be built with help of a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy on 347,000 acres of Federal land, Ivanpah will feature 347,000 large mirrors surrounding three generating towers.

Some kind of carbon trading plan is expected to be part of California's program to implement AB 32, and other regional trading plans are being put in place piecemeal in other parts of the country--exactly the uneven regulatory environment that big business has said it didn't want. With companies no longer much interested in trading carbon voluntarily to prepare for inauguration of a national system, the Chicago climate exchange (CCX) is on the verge of collapse, the Financial Times reported Monday.

Had President Obama proposed a revenue-neutral "sky tax" on carbon, as some economists and climatologists proposed, in which revenues would be used to generate green-tech jobs in the parts of the country most adversely effected by penalizing coal, the national picture might be different today. The president might have created employment in just those regions where he took the worst drubbing yesterday, without standing accused of driving up the Federal deficit. But--to recycle this week's favorite cliches--he failed to exhibit the audacity of hope, and the electorate said nope.

Without a national system that penalizes emission of greenhouse gases equally regardless of their source--a system that can be tuned to achieve just the reductions the nation desires--we are left with second-best solutions and a second-rate approach to policy making, in which each special interest lobbies to favor its cause and disadvantage its adversaries. The result is a hit-and-miss approach to greenhouse gas reduction, in which the end result cannot be accurately predicted and everything depends on who is picked as a winner or loser.

Quick to get a jump on the new realities,however distasteful they may be, the American Wind Energy Association issued a press release this week pointing out that while wind far outdid coal last year in new electricity generation installation, this year the pattern has reversed, with coal coming out far ahead. To redress that, AWEA would like to see the government enact a national renewable energy standard and extend 2009 wind tax credits. Good luck.

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