Clearing the Air: Climate Disaster, Paris and California

By Tom Frantz

The nations of the world have reached an agreement in Paris that calls for net zero CO2 emissions some time in the second half of this century. Unfortunately, the goal is appropriate but there are no mandatory actions to take the world even half way. It is relatively easy to agree to lofty goals when there are no binding commitments.

The nations of the world will do as they please for now but promise to ratchet up the necessary cuts as time, technology and economics allow. The rich nations have also promised to help the poor countries develop renewable energy and mitigate the extreme effects of climate change. Maybe it is good that everyone agrees there is a problem with burning fossil fuel. But this agreement is a farce in terms of requiring the immediate actions needed to save the world from pending climate disaster.

California, on the other hand, is supposed to be ahead of the curve. But, what is going on in the Golden State? Meaningful cuts in greenhouse gases (GHGs) have yet to take place even with mandatory targets passed by the legislature.

AB32 legislation was passed in 2006 and proudly signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The goal was to reduce 2020 greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. A scoping plan was developed and approved by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 2008. The plan detailed new regulations, including a cap-and-trade scheme, that would allow the state to reach the 2020 goal. The plan began to be implemented slowly in 2010. Some measures were postponed so the recovering economy would not be slowed.

This year, the CARB will be updating this plan in order to reach a newly mandated GHG emission goal of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. California also has an unofficial goal of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The zero net emission goal, agreed as necessary by the world in Paris, has not seen the light in California.

AB32 requires an annual inventory of the state’s emissions. This inventory has been completed through 2013. The numbers are released about 18 months after the end of each year.

The first scoping plan required an approximate 1% reduction per year of total GHG emissions. This was to be accomplished through efficiency measures such as higher mileage vehicles and another state law requiring that all electricity sold in the state in 2020 be at least 33% renewable. The cap-and-trade program was a backstop, if all else failed, to ensure the goal was met.

Even though the 2020 goal should be easily reached, there are some issues. The 2009 inventory showed the state with 462.1 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. The 2013 inventory was 459.3 million tons. The 2020 goal is 431 million tons. The rate of reduction under the first three years of the Scoping Plan is three times less than what was expected and needed.

Excuses for not getting the hoped-for reductions include robust economic growth, a drought that has limited hydroelectric production and the shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. Since 2013, the drought has only worsened. Economic growth is also continuing to add more CO2 emissions. Now we have the Aliso Canyon leak of methane stored underground in the hills north of the San Fernando Valley. That uncapped leak, by itself, could increase the state inventory of GHG emissions for 2015 and 2016 by 1%.

The state originally had more than 10 years to get from 462 million to 431 million tons of CO2 emissions per year (2010–2020). That is less than 3 million tons per year. The state will have exactly 10 more years to go from 431 million to 259 million tons (2021–2030). That is more than 17 million tons per year. The 2050 target of 80% below 1990 levels will take additional annual reductions of 17 million tons per year. Net zero emissions will require another 86 million tons of reductions.

Because emissions have not been going down, the CARB has bragged instead that the carbon intensity of the economy is decreasing. What they don’t say is that this measure of GHG emissions versus the economy has been decreasing since the 1970s and the rate of decrease in California has actually slowed in recent years. California really has to figure out how to have economic growth and a decrease in total GHG emissions simultaneously if it is to ever fulfill its self-proclaimed role as a world climate leader.

In 2013, there were slight reductions in the inventory. These came from the state’s major power companies importing renewable energy from other states. This leads to speculation that California is buying up renewable energy across the western United States and letting those states that don’t have a GHG-reduction plan continue to use, or even increase, coal-fired electricity. It is hoped that Obama’s Clean Power Plan will put a stop to that nonsense.

The reductions needed for 2030 will be much more difficult to obtain than the 2020 target. This reduction will have to be a steady 5% per year, and this rate of reduction needs to start before 2020. But the CARB does not intend to call for these increased reductions until 2021.

Big questions remain about how best to get these reductions without slowing economic growth. Idealistically, with virtually unlimited solar energy available, there is no reason the economy cannot continue to grow while GHG emissions decrease.

No doubt, the state can reach these goals but Governor Jerry Brown just went to Paris bragging about something California has yet to demonstrate in real terms.

No doubt as well, the lowest-income residents of the state will be affected negatively in this campaign if the best mitigations are not put in place on their behalf. Big questions remain about how increasing fuel and electricity rates will be offset for low-income residents and how they will affordably transition to non–fossil fuel burning transportation.

Governments are not going to do this difficult job of saving the human race without continued strong advocacy from the people.

*****

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 improve the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.

  • 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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