California Climate Bills Could Set A High Bar For The Rest Of The Country

The state would be set up to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050.

As states prepare to develop plans for meeting new greenhouse gas standards from the Environmental Protection Agency, they might look to California as an example of what's possible.

Right now, the California legislature is considering two bills, SB 32 and 350, which would allow the state to meet interim climate goals that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) established through an executive order in April. Brown's order calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a stopping point along the path to reaching an 80 percent cut by 2050 -- a goal scientists have said is necessary to preventing the worst impacts of climate change. 

The state is already on pace to bring emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020, a goal established in the landmark state law known as the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The latest bills would set the state up for long-term reductions and establish specific energy goals to make that possible.

SB 32, from state Sen. Fran Pavley (D), would inscribe the 2030 and 2050 targets in state law. SB 350, from Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León (D) and Sen. Mark Leno (D), would increase the amount of energy the state is required to draw from renewables 50 percent, reduce petroleum use 50 percent, and improve the energy efficiency of buildings 50 percent, all by the year 2030. The bills have both passed in the state Senate, and the assembly is expected to debate the bills in the next few weeks.

Lawmakers said the bills will allow the legislature to shape the state's goals. "The governor is moving forward with or without us," Pavley said Tuesday in a press conference. "I want the legislature to engage in this process."

They're also pointing to the success the state has had in meeting the goals laid out in their 2006 bill. "Ten years ago we didn't know if all of this was possible," Pavley said. "We know today that we can do this, and that we have a moral imperative to do this."

Advocates cited the advances the state has made since the 2006 law was passed: It claims 430,000 jobs in the advance energy field, has more than 100,000 electric vehicles on the road and is on pace to hit 25 percent renewable energy by the end of 2016. All as the state's economy has continued to grow.

"Skeptics have said that our clean air policies would destroy the economy, that we set unrealistic targets," de León said at the presser, where he was joined by leaders from a number of California businesses that support the bills. "And yet here we are today, well on the way to meeting those targets with an economy that is stronger than ever, that is the envy of other states."

That's not to say the bills aren't meeting opposition, particularly from the oil industry, which is not a fan of the goal of cutting petroleum use in half.

"California’s petroleum industry is proud to produce the world’s cleanest gasoline and diesel," Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd said in a statement. "Ultimately, Californians will be best served by inclusive public policy that protects our environment and supports a thriving economy."

Utilities in the state have been more supportive, but may seek some changes in the Assembly bill, according to the Los Angeles Times.

For environmental groups, passing these two bills into law will ensure some permanence for climate policy. "A new governor can dispose of [Brown's executive order] as he or she sees fit," said David Pettit, director of the southern California air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a different story if you see it in legislation. It puts this in concrete, so to speak."

The bills again set California up to be a leader on climate policy nationally, particularly when it comes to setting interim targets.

"Having a long-term goal is usually based on what the science says is necessary, while setting a medium-term goal combines looking at where you need to be in 2050 with some analysis of how you get there over the next decade or two," said Gabriel Pacyniak, the climate change mitigation program manager at the Georgetown Climate Center. "It's really combining both -- a 'where we need to go' approach and a 'how do we get there' approach." 

Clean air policy is also an area where California has led historically -- "purely out of necessity," said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. The state's large population and pollution-trapping topography have long create air quality concerns; the five worst cities for air pollution in the U.S. are all in California. 

"There are a lot of instances where we've really screwed up, especially on agriculture and the way we abuse water," Gerston said. "But when it comes to energy and environment, we're way ahead of everybody."

Advocates are hopeful that, as it did with the 2006 law, California can once again be a model for other states.

"I think the biggest lesson conceptually is that you can have a robust greenhouse gas reduction program and grow the economy at the same time," Pettit said. "That happened here. I don't see any reason it can't happen in every other state."