California Dreaming Becomes Global Climate Leadership

I just returned to the United States from California and want to share some observations from my time away. The most important of these: California approaches have proven central to addressing the world's climate crisis. California passed its original cap and trade legislation in 2006, when federal climate policy was largely in its infancy. Almost a decade later, California is leading the nation and the world into a new climate-smart paradigm.

When California political leaders like Governor Jerry Brown or State Senate President pro tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) talk about climate, their ideas seem far ahead of even the most progressive European leaders. At an event in Los Angeles, I heard Senator de León articulate a persuasive case that the state's climate actions have made California--the world's 7th largest economy--even stronger and more attractive to business interests. Of equal importance, he treated the moral imperative behind those actions as inarguable.

Because California has invested so much time into engineering the complex financial and policy nuances for climate action, the state's political representatives were sought out by climate leaders from around the world at the recent Paris climate talks. Due to the state's large population and economy--larger than many countries--it has developed climate strategies that can be emulated by nations worldwide.

Perhaps the most important hallmark of California's approach has been to attack climate action barriers with gusto. Think of this as essentially a "no excuses" approach. To ensure that renewable energy sources could be scaled up to make a real difference, the state established an aggressive renewable energy mandate that simply forced the power-generation sector to work it out. To relieve "range anxiety" about electric vehicles, the state recently announced plans for 1500 charging stations in Los Angeles alone. No excuses.

So is California's climate action just for wine sipping elites in electric-powered convertibles? Far from it. The state has made special provisions to ensure that elements like electric vehicles, car sharing, and bike sharing are also available to low-income communities and diverse populations.

These kinds of actions are made possible in large part because of California's cap and trade system, which requires power plants, oil refineries, and other emitters to purchase emissions allowances for each ton of carbon dioxide. This not only decreases emissions, but also spins off billions of dollars in state revenues that can be used to implement other climate solutions, like building charging stations or purchasing conservation easements to capture and store more carbon in forests.

The Los Angeles event was held to discuss the next big move in California's climate action plan--using "green infrastructure" to make cities more energy efficient, climate resilient, and equitable. In addition to Senator de León, attendees included State Assembly Speaker-elect Anthony Rendon (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Barbara Romero, and many other political and community leaders.

Implementing green infrastructure is a way to weave natural functions back into cities. Natural green infrastructure elements may include wetlands, trees, and other green spaces. But engineered parks, streets, and other built spaces can also include "nature-like" green infrastructure elements. Implemented correctly, these investments increase energy efficiency and reduce climate risks in four major ways, best expressed by the shorthand: Connect, Cool, Absorb, and Protect.

Connect - establishing fully-integrated walking, biking, and public transit networks that get people out of cars without compromising safety or convenience.

Cool - reducing the urban heat island effect that worsens public health risks from heat waves and increases carbon emissions from air conditioning by 5-10 percent.

Absorb - restoring sponge-like features in cities to capture rainfall that would otherwise become polluting runoff into streams and rivers, instead storing it underground for drinking water supplies.

Protect - creating green buffers to guard our cities against sea level rise and swollen rivers.

Where better than California to invest in this idea, and how better to introduce it than in underserved communities like South Los Angeles? For example, my organization--The Trust for Public Land--is working with state agencies, the City of Los Angeles, and community partners to create networks of Green Alleys through very low-income parts of Los Angeles, where concrete often dominates the landscape. Featuring plantings and permeable pavement plus innovative features like dry wells, these alleyways create healthier and more livable communities by connecting safe routes for walking and biking, cooling the surrounding environment, and absorbing and storing rainwater that would otherwise foul the Los Angeles River. Green alleys will help Los Angeles meet its aggressive climate goals to reduce carbon-intensive water imports, increase walking and biking, and protect citizens from climate risks.

Thanks to leadership from Governor Brown and legislators like Senator de León, California is prepared to invest a portion of revenues from its cap and trade system into multiple-benefit, climate-smart green infrastructure for California's cities. These programs--Urban Greening, Transformational Climate Communities, and Urban Forestry--will total $150 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

As with the rest of California's climate investments, these programs will be science-based, strategic, and directed at communities that are hurt first and worst by climate impacts. California is not alone in seeing a moral imperative here. Pope Francis recently called on nations to create greener neighborhoods for low income people in support of environmental justice and climate action. In pursuing this goal, as in so many climate efforts, California's climate dreams will become the world's roadmap to action.