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Clearing the Air: California continues to heat the planet

By Tom Frantz

Now that California has been declared the sixth leading economy in the world, where does it rank in terms of climate disrupting emissions?

It turns out that California, in 2014, was the tenth largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) among all countries of the world. In terms of economic output, California produced $5200 of gross domestic product (GDP) per ton of GHG emissions. Switzerland leads the world in economic output per ton of GHG emissions with over $9000 of GDP per ton. In the developed world there are at least five countries with a carbon intensity better than California. The carbon intensity of the economy is relative measure of importance but the only number that really counts, in terms of the climate, are total GHG emissions.

The 2014 inventory for GHG emissions in California was recently released. State officials bragged about being on track to meet 2020 goals, which are to get total California emissions down to 1990 levels. They claim the AB32 Scoping Plan, which began implementation around 2010, is working. The 2014 inventory showed a paltry drop in total emissions of 0.6 percent.

There are many parts to the California plan for reducing GHG emissions. The Renewable Portfolio Standard, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, Cap and Trade, plus efficiency mandates are all pieces of the puzzle.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard requires that electricity used in the state must be 33% renewable by 2020. Greenhouse gases from fossil fuel electrical production have not yet decreased in the state but imports of renewable energy from other states and local wind and solar construction have facilitated progress towards the 33%. The renewable content of imported electricity is hard to determine because California, for example, may claim to import out-of-state wind energy electrons while a coal plant next door to the windmills is putting carbon dense electrons into the same wires.

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) demands a 10% reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 2020 compared to 2010 values. The oil industry hates this regulation because it forces them to pay for biofuels and electric vehicle charging stations. There is controversy over the biofuel carbon intensity calculations which seem to be manipulated to give unreasonably low carbon intensities. For example, growing food for fuel is never going to solve the world’s energy problem and potentially causes famine and war yet corn ethanol has a lower carbon intensity than gasoline.

Giving negative carbon intensities for methane fuel captured at factory dairies is also a cruel joke on a resource starved world. Basically, providing renewable electricity for transportation is the only viable way to decrease the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. The LCFS must implement higher goals for the coming years in spite of massive oil industry opposition.

The Cap and Trade program cannot yet be shown to have decreased California emissions one iota. The offsets paid for by power plants and refineries for bio digesters at out-of-state pig farms and the fences (figuratively speaking) built around Canadian forests in Quebec do not show any real reductions while local power plants continue to pollute locally. On top of that, the auction market of emission credits has fallen apart. These auctions are where money is obtained for constructing the high speed rail with its potential GHG reductions which are not much more than a figment of Governor Brown’s ego driven imagination.

Sadly, Governor Brown currently seems willing to drop the Low Carbon Fuel Standard instead of strengthening it by making a trade with the oil companies for an indefinite extension of Cap and Trade.

California is proud of how the carbon intensity of its economy has dropped since AB32 has been implemented. The truth is the carbon intensity of our Gross Domestic Product has decreased steadily, by more than 2% annually, over the past 40 years. These decreases, through efficiency measures forced by higher prices of carbon fuels, started with the Arab Oil Embargo during the 1970’s.

The bottom line is these decreases are not good enough to prevent climate disaster. We have to decrease net GHG emissions rapidly down to zero and, even then, we will face unprecedented warming because of past emissions. Ultimately, we need to remove GHG emissions from our atmosphere by growing plants and returning every surplus ounce of carbon based plant material back into the soil.

On a side note, the slight decrease in the 2014 GHG inventory of California had two main causes. One was a small decrease in emissions from imported electricity and the other was a fairly large decrease in emissions from the natural gas used by residents and businesses for heating. All other measured sectors either held steady or increased emissions. Ironically, the reason there was any decrease at all is directly related to a warming planet. There was significantly less heating of buildings in 2014 because the four winter months of that year were the warmest ever measured in California.


Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, he serves on the CVAQ steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health, environmental, and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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