California’s not dreaming about action on climate change

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With all of the attention placed on the global financial crisis of recent weeks, I’ve been worrying about whether environmental issues, particularly actions to tackle climate change, are falling off the public agenda. A major announcement this week from California, the world’s eighth largest economy, gives me hope that the environment is still a public policy priority.

Just over two years ago, Governor Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWS Act), legally requiring a reduction of GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. That’s equivalent to reducing annual emissions from 14 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per person to 10 tons. By 2050, the state is aiming for an 80% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels.

California’s action has helped put climate change on the national agenda in the US, and has inspired other states to take action in the face of federal inaction. Here in Canada, California’s leadership has played a big role in shaping British Columbia’s Climate Action Plan which encompasses a commitment to aggressive reduction goals, a Climate Action Secretariat, and Canada’s first carbon tax.

In California, the state’s Air Resources Board (ARB) is the lead agency responsible for implementing the GWS Act, and last year made significant progress by identifying initial actions to reduce GHG emissions, preparing an inventory of historic emissions, establishing emission reporting requirements, and setting the 2020 emissions limit.

This week, the state took one giant step closer to achieving the goals set out under the Act by introducing a Climate Change Scoping Plan outlining the State’s strategy to achieve the 2020 greenhouse gas emissions limit. The plan, which is expected to receive formal approval in December, proposes a mix of strategies and a comprehensive set of actions designed to achieve several important outcomes:

  • Reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Saving energy;
  • Reducing dependency on oil;
  • Encouraging more diverse forms of energy; and
  • Creating new jobs.

In support of these goals, Schwarzenegger signed two related bills into law this week. One of them promotes smart growth and provides incentives for creating walkable, sustainable communities and revitalizing existing ones. Another establishes a Green Collar Jobs Council to support the workforce needs of a growing green economy in the state.

A cornerstone of the Climate Change Scoping Plan is a cap-and-trade program with hard and declining caps covering 85 percent of the state's emissions. It will be developed in conjunction with the Western Climate Initiative which includes seven states and four Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec) that have committed to capping their emissions and creating a regional carbon market.

The plan contains a number of progressive measures that environmentalists, academics and other stakeholders have long called for, including:

  • Expanding and strengthening existing energy efficiency programs and building and appliance standards;
  • Achieving a renewables energy mix of 33 percent;
  • Adopting and implementing California’s clean car standards and a low carbon fuel standard; and
  • Creating a range of targeted fees to shift behaviours and raise the required funds to implement the plan.

The action doesn’t stop there. California is also proposing the deployment of the California Solar Initiative, high-speed rail, water-related energy measures, and regulations to reduce emissions from trucks and marine traffic. Every California agency, department and division is now required to bring climate change considerations into their policies, planning and analysis—building and expanding current efforts to green fleets and buildings, and managing water, natural resources, and infrastructure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To ensure that the 2020 emissions target is met, the plan incorporates an interesting element called a ‘margin of safety’. This is a new feature designed to account for measures in uncapped sectors that do not, or may not, achieve the estimated emission reductions in this plan.

Despite California’s leadership on the climate action front, the global financial crisis that I opened with is the wild card in the Climate Change Scoping Plan. With an annual budget deficit of $16 billion and falling tax revenues, the state will have to be both creative and steadfast to reach its goals. The good news is that time and again, California has shown that it is both progressive and innovative. I am confident they’ll draw on that history this time around. We’ll all be watching.