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Analysis: In boosting climate goals, California daring others to follow

When California Governor Jerry Brown announced earlier this week that he was ratcheting up his state's already ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target, he put his state in a familiar place: trying to set the regulatory pace for the rest of the nation, and even the world. And although some critics warn that California’s aggressive effort to cut emissions will harm its economy, Brown’s allies say there are plenty of data to suggest the state could cash in on curbing climate change.

California has a long history of pushing the envelope on environmental regulations. It created the world's first vehicle exhaust limits in the 1960s, the first appliance energy efficiency regulations in the 1970s, and the first low-carbon fuel standard 8 years ago. Now, the state—which boasts the world’s eighth largest economy—wants to lead efforts to keep global warming below 2°C.

Brown's executive order Wednesday builds on a landmark law that California enacted in 2006 to cut its greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020, in part by creating its own cap-and-trade market. That law survived court challenges and a hard-fought, well-funded voter referendum to repeal it. Since implementation, the law has resulted in 100 million tons of greenhouse gas reductions (roughly equivalent to taking 20 million cars off the road), bringing the state halfway to its 2020 goal. Policy debates in California increasingly have been focusing on what comes after 2020.

Brown answered that question with what he billed as "the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target in North America." In fact, it is in line with the most aggressive goal unveiled by any country in the run-up to an agreement on a new international agreement on climate change expected to be finalized at a December meeting in Paris. Specifically, California now aims to cut carbon emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030—a goal on par with that adopted by the 28-nation European Union for Paris.

Of course, California won't be sitting at the negotiating table in Paris. But the Golden State's $2.2 trillion economy dwarfs that of all but a few of the nations that will be forging the new climate change deal.

Those familiar with the U.N. process say California can now serve as an important lodestar for the Paris effort, especially because—unlike Europe—it has been able to generate jobs even as it has slashed carbon emissions.

"An aggressive standard by a healthy economy that is technologically at the cutting edge sets a benchmark," Michael Oppenheimer, an atmospheric scientist at Princeton University, told ScienceInsider. "It represents a confidence that there are economic opportunities in getting ahead of the curve."

Brown and his allies will be able to summon plenty of data to back his decision, say close observers of the governor's long-telegraphed move. Whether assessing energy, economics, or politics, the governor has the numbers to show that new, higher goals are achievable and desirable. The key question is whether California's tech-heavy, low-coal economy makes it unique and whether it can indeed serve as a model for transforming more carbon-dependent states and nations.

A key study bolstering Brown's executive order—the PATHWAYS project commissioned by the state's energy regulators—came out earlier this month. In it, San Francisco–based consulting firm Energy + Environmental Economics (E3) used conservative assumptions about how fast new technology would develop to model several ways California could achieve 26% to 38% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. All involve ratcheting up renewables from 25% to at least 50% of California's electricity mix, as well as aggressive deployment of LED lighting and other steps to curb energy use. Also key: a major transformation in automobile fueling, with heavy emphasis on electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Significantly, E3 found that such measures would add no more than $18 per month to the average household energy bill and could actually wind up saving Californians money if U.S. gasoline prices rise in the future. That would not be new for California. Already, California ranks near the bottom of all states in the amount of money spent on energy per capita. Thanks to strong energy efficiency programs as well as moderate weather, energy consumed per capita by Californians is about 36% below the U.S. average.

"It shows we already have the technical know-how to achieve ambitious targets while continuing robust economic growth," said Erica Morehouse, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund in Sacramento, who has been working on "beyond 2020" issues in California.

The Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, has similarly been modeling potential pathways to deeper decarbonization of the state's economy. It has modeled 13 options for the state, from accelerating its already nation-leading solar program to ramping up nuclear power. Both options are "technically achievable and economically reasonable," says energy expert Daniel Kammen, the director of the lab. Some pathways would cost California consumers less than they would pay if the state had no carbon target at all, he said.

The move to cleaner energy could also create more jobs in California than sticking to fossil fuels, Kammen says his lab’s research has found. And he and others argue that idea has been borne out by California's recent experience. The state led the United States in job growth over the past year, adding nearly 460,000 new payroll positions over 12 months, ending in March. Many new jobs have direct ties to the state's climate change program—including major transit projects—and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (an alliance of labor groups) has supported proposals for increasing California's goals for cleaner energy.

"It comes down to a simple, but intellectually deep concept," Kammen says. "Every time you stop burning a fuel and start investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, you're investing in people and companies and innovation instead of pouring money into a nonrenewable resource."

Kammen argues that California's go-it-alone policy has already had an influence on international talks. He points to both last fall's bilateral climate change deal between the United States and China, and Mexico's recently announced plan to cut its emissions 25%, regardless of what other nations pledge. "Those are exactly in the California intellectual model," Kammen said, "It's 'We are going to forge ahead, and the green jobs will go to those who act.' "

Still, some argue that California's economy may yet suffer because of its aggressive effort on climate change. Last fall, for instance, Loren Kaye, president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, a think tank affiliated with the California Chamber of Commerce, warned that Californians could rebel when a gas surcharge related to cutting carbon emissions began directly to hit the state's motorists this year. So far, however, there hasn't been great shock, because average pump prices initially fell around the United States this year due to falling global oil prices.

In an op-ed in The Sacramento Bee last fall, Kaye repeated a warning that opponents have sounded since California's climate action effort began: California will lose businesses and jobs to other states and nations that don't adopt similarly stringent reductions on carbon emissions. "Leadership isn’t just being ahead of the pack—it’s getting the rest of the pack to follow," Kaye wrote.

Both boosters and critics of Brown's targets can agree on one thing: Because California accounts for less than 2% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, the state’s effort will only help address global warming if it inspires others to take a similar plunge.