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California Reaches Greenhouse Gas Emissions Target Four Years Ahead of Schedule

It is possible to achieve state-mandated global warming reduction goals after all. The nation's first such goal, signed into law by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, called for reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
July 13, 2018, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Alan Levine

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) made the announcement of the landmark achievement on Wednesday with the release of the California Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory - 2018 Edition that measured emissions in 2016.

Ten years after the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (Assembly Bill 32), authored by Assemblymember Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) became law, "greenhouse gas pollution in California fell below 1990 levels for the first time since emissions peaked in 2004," announced the California Air Resources Board (CARB) on Wednesday, along with the release of the California Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory - 2018 Edition that measured emissions in 2016.

“California set the toughest emissions targets in the nation, tracked progress and delivered results,” said Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. “The next step is for California to cut emissions [40 percent] below 1990 levels by 2030 – a heroic and very ambitious goal.”

A major reason for achieving the goal early was significant gains from renewables in the energy sector:

Electricity generation had the largest decline among the sectors. Emissions from this sector declined 18 percent in 2016, reflecting continued growth in renewable energy – such as solar, wind and geothermal – as a result of the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard, and a corresponding drop in natural gas generation. Solar electricity in all forms, including rooftop generation, grew 33 percent, while natural gas fell more than 15 percent.

Thanks to the carbon price signal created by the Cap-and-Trade Program that makes fossil fuel generation more expensive, cleaner out-of-state electricity is increasingly taking the place of fuels such as coal. This included more imports of hydroelectric power from outside the state, which grew by nearly 39 percent in 2016 thanks to abundant rainfall throughout the West Coast.

"Negative progress in transportation"

Transportation, on the other hand, the largest source of emissions, saw a gain of at least two percentage points from 2015 in terms of the share of total emissions to 41 percent** "because of increased fuel consumption," according to CARB.

David R. Baker, energy reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, attributes the increase to "relatively cheap gasoline and a strengthening economy. And while California has aggressively supported electric cars, only about 200,000 are registered in the state."

“We have not made progress on transportation,” UC Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein said. “We’ve made negative progress.”

CARB gives credit to the state's Low Carbon Fuel Standard for increasing biofuels consumption to a record 1.5 billion gallons. "These low-carbon alternative fuels, consisting mostly of biodiesel, renewable diesel, and ethanol, avoided 14 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, compared to what would have happened if conventional fossil fuels had been used."

CARB members expressed concern about increasing vehicle miles traveled at a first-of-its-kind meeting last month with the California Transporation Commission. Another issue of concern is that the state is following the national trend of ditching more fuel-efficient cars for sport and crossover utility vehicles.

More greenhouse gas emissions data is available in the 2000 to 2016 Inventory Trends Report [pdf].

**Note that last year's archived Inventory Trends Report shows transportation accounting for 37 percent of total emissions in 2015, which would mean that transportation emissions jumped by four percentage points, not two, in 2016.

Related posts on last year's Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory report, showing emissions for 2015:

  • August 24, 2017
    A new economics report from Beacon Economics for Next 10 shows that what good for the environment is good for the state's economy, but the results are marred by increasing vehicle-miles-traveled. The state's housing crisis is partly to blame.
  • June 10, 2017
    California is demonstrating that improving the economy and the environment go hand in hand. A new inventory report from the state's Air Resources Board notes changes in gross domestic product, population, and greenhouse gas emissions since 2000.
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Published on Wednesday, July 11, 2018 in San Francisco Chronicle
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